The office seems like an immutable fact of corporate life, to the point that it’s been parodied in popular culture ranging from the antics of Dilbert and his pointy-haired boss to the eponymous TV series in the US and UK. One could almost be forgiven for assuming that shiny buildings filled with drab cubicles are the only way to execute work in a modern society productively.
The primacy of the physical office was unquestioned until the COVID pandemic proved beyond any doubt that former cubicle dwellers could be productive when unchained from their stale coffee and questionable “fungal growth experiments” in the break room refrigerator. With remote productivity now “settled science,” many have suggested that offices still bear relevance as collaboration and innovation spaces, where employees will bounce from chance encounter to chance encounter, leaving a wake of innovative cross-organizational collaboration.
The dream vs. reality
There’s certainly truth to the theory that chance encounters, especially among people who might be pages away on a company org chart but frequent the same water cooler, are more likely in an in-person setting. Without any formal mechanism encouraging this collaboration, chance meetings were the best option by default.
However, if you’ve recently visited a physical office, you’re more likely to see isolated individuals hunched over a keyboard with headphones connected to a Zoom meeting than dozens of ad hoc collaboration moments. You may also have found that the office you remember as being “not so bad” is a much more frustrating place.
Whatever elements, from tech and furniture to decor, that you’ve painstakingly customized over the past two years is replaced by generic equivalents, and that commute that “wasn’t so bad” when it was a daily occurrence is frustratingly endless and stressful compared to a walk down the hall. While some workers are thrilled to get off their kitchen tables or corners of the living room, just as many are trading spaces they’ve optimized for a generic “hoteling desk” that’s cleaned, sterilized, and denuded of all personalization at the end of each day.
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Do we really need offices?
Rather than considering what offices should look like in the future, it’s worth asking the deeper question of whether we need offices at all for most knowledge workers. The office originated based on the simple advantages that bringing humans physically together engendered. If your choice was to send a telegram across the country and wait days for a response, consolidating critical employees in the same office created a significant competitive advantage. During the dawn of the corporation, there was simply no reasonable alternative to having people in the same space in order to communicate effectively and efficiently.
While we’ve had decent and effective remote working technologies for years before COVID, the balance of power in a working situation seems to reside with the majority. When the majority were in the same location, remote workers missed key interactions and were generally less effective than in-office counterparts. With the majority of knowledge workers now remote, those in a physical location are forced to act like remote workers.
Most leaders have realized this power dynamic, and it was the force behind many companies advocating a “return to the office” early in the pandemic, under the assumption that remote work would be a temporary and subpar “Band Aid” until office work was again feasible. However, a confluence of factors from employee retention to pandemic-related uncertainty has most organizations rethinking return-to-office mandates. With remote work now the standard, anyone who returns to the office will likely still be operating under remote working rules.
This being the case, some companies are attempting to make the office a “destination,” with everything from yoga classes to new décor and free lunch. These are interesting experiments, but if someone is going to travel 45 minutes for a workout and lunch, is their office building going to be the top destination?
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The other emerging theme is physical offices as a collaboration space, with cubicles swapped for whiteboard-laden meeting areas. While filling an obvious need for high-value in-person interactions, it’s unlikely that the entire workforce will be engaging in these types of activities every day of the week. Like an asset that’s occasionally needed, this seems like an obvious opportunity for companies like WeWork to offer state-of-the-art conference rooms on an as-needed basis versus individual companies owning a huge and expensive real estate footprint that’s not regularly used.
For many leaders and organizations, real estate is a bit of a “crown jewel,” and few assets show the world the importance of your organization like your brand emblazoned on a shiny new office tower in the heart of the business district. However, dedicated, owned physical space seems to be a far less valuable asset than it once was. As you consider your company’s future, come to conversations armed with data about how, when and where your employees are working. Tech leaders will help guide and shape many of these conversations and drive the next innovations of where and how we work and collaborate.