Respawn point: The inevitable reincarnation of the corporate office

Enlarge / If you're back in the office, this helpful song will help you remember the cardinal rule of social distancing.Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

If you told any executive at a major corporation in mid-2019 that close to half of the US workforce would be working from home within the next year, they would have at least raised a skeptical eyebrow (and then probably called security to have you removed). Yet, here we are.

Major technology companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, have closed their physical offices until well into 2021. Twitter has told many employees that they can work from home permanently. And now that we have nearly six months of involuntary widespread work-from-home behind us, many other organizations are also reconsidering the value of office space.

In April, a Gallup poll showed 62 percent of the workforce working from home, and 59 percent hoping they could continue to do so as much as possible once the pandemic is under control. While the numbers have since dropped to some degree—Stanford Institute for Economic Research figures in June showed only 42 percent of the US workforce working from home full-time—the fact remains that people's relationship with their workplace has been dramatically restructured, perhaps permanently.

Working in the Long-Long Ago, when we all went into the office. There's a lot of very expensive real estate going underutilized right now.
Enlarge / Working in the Long-Long Ago, when we all went into the office. There's a lot of very expensive real estate going underutilized right now.Laurie Noble / Getty Images

Management seems to be coming to the same conclusions. An April Gartner survey found 74 percent of chief financial officers planning to at least partially fulfill that wish, moving some portion of their workforce to permanent remote work to cut costs. The question is to what degree companies will transform their definition of the office to take advantage of the cultural and technical adjustments they've made to keep things moving while offices are empty.

However long it takes to get to the point where we can put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, it seems certain that the role of "the office" is bound to change. You don't have to search very hard to find utopian stories about the "office of the future" and "work after COVID."

This is not going to be one of them.

I have not come as a herald of the new, shiny, corporate workspace of the future—instead, I'd like to throw a bucket of cold reality on the hype fire. What the past six months have taught leadership at many organizations is that their businesses can function adequately without people in the office and that balance sheets would look a lot more attractive if they could get rid of some of those real estate expenses. Prepare for the onslaught of multi-year management consulting engagements.

I do not claim any psychic powers. But as someone who has worked in both "hybrid" and full-time work-at-home capacities for many, many years, I have some sense of what offices should be in the future—and what many of them inevitably will become.

What is the office for, anyway?

For a very long time, the office has been the factory floor of information work. It's existed as a warehouse of raw materials (office supplies) and finished goods (filed reports, balance sheets, and presentations). It's an assembly line of content, a stockyard for employees where managers can count heads in seats and monitor productivity. It is also the vessel of corporate culture, where employees are marinated for good or ill in the stew of management and mismanagement, team building and destroying, and the occasional conference room cluster.

As work has become increasingly digitized, the production line aspect of an office space has become less and less tethered to the physical space. But up until recently, that didn't dramatically change the role of the physical office, particularly in industries that are not tech-centric or tech-adjacent. Part of the reason is that for most of its history IT infrastructure itself mirrored the factory metaphor of work, with work tightly coupled to internal IT resources and access to data dependent on connection to very specific networks. But this in-person mandate was also partially because face-to-face interactions were seen as essential to organizational cohesion and effective management.

These two people are collaborating so hard on a project that they actually appear to be moving in fast motion.
Enlarge / These two people are collaborating so hard on a project that they actually appear to be moving in fast motion.Compassionate Eye Foundation / Karan Kapoor / Getty Images

Some organizations—like consulting firms—can function pretty well without an office, because they've traditionally been out of the office most of the time anyway. But for many organizations, the office provides some things that cannot be replicated with total fidelity in an all-remote environment—places such as the public library where my wife works. She's already returned nearly full-time to the workplace, but there have been some obvious changes.

At first, only small shifts of staff were rotated into the library branches, before bringing people in for reduced-length days. Everyone socially distances and wears masks; the break room has an occupancy limit of one. Cabinets that used to hold coffee creamer, sugar, and other delights are now police-taped like a crime scene. Since there's not enough space for social distancing in the staff workroom, tasks like program planning, coordinating meetings, scheduling, and professional development all are best executed remotely. Accordingly, everyone now has work-at-home hours on their schedule.

Even when a good deal of remote work is possible, there are certain things that are lost without having some time in the office. Mentoring, informal in-person collaboration, and other intangibles can suffer without a shared physical space. Technical support may not be totally adequate for peak productivity, either. And while not having to commute has allegedly helped with "work-life balance" during the lockdown, many people would be a lot happier if they could go to the office a few days a week to get better division of work and family life—yes, even if it's just to go hide from their kids for a few hours in a co-working facility.

Put work to the people, or the people to work?

Many "return to office" future-thinks have focused on reducing potential disease exposure. We're inevitably going to see temperature checks and touchless entry, and companies will trumpet a laundry list of fixes intended to address Centers for Disease Control guidelines and whatever local regulations remain. You may or may not have robot janitors, self-cleaning bathrooms, UV light-based decontamination booths, and individual lunch break capsules.

But to make the post-pandemicpocalypse office work best, companies should focus on making it a place people want to be, at least occasionally—someplace that makes it as easy to drop in and work as it is to work from home, with the extra benefit of stocking up on more social capital. The next iteration of offices will have to integrate people still working from home or in other remote locations into the action seamlessly, so that those permanently working remotely don't become second-class corporate citizens.

Datacenters—also known as "the places where businesses keep their servers and stuff"—are extraordinarily expensive to build and maintain.
Enlarge / Datacenters—also known as "the places where businesses keep their servers and stuff"—are extraordinarily expensive to build and maintain.Erik Isakson / Getty Images

With CFOs looking to trim down real estate costs, data centers may be the de facto gravitational center of organizations in terms of square footage (aside from manufacturing plants, that is). Companies may see a benefit in using short-term office space to handle planned surges in "on site" work, as they sublet out sections of their own offices or escape from leases in expensive office towers.

The strength of the office is collaboration, so offices will have to become collaboration-centric. That doesn't mean the open-plan office fad will continue, however. What it means is that technology is going to have to make the office more of a hub for remote collaboration—more video, more screen sharing, and more virtualization of physical collaboration tools like whiteboards. Conference rooms are going to have fewer chairs and more screens, with face-to-face collaboration via video becoming the de-facto way to do meetings.

Work that can only be done in the office—whether it be due to compliance issues, the computing or bandwidth required to do it, or the need for interaction with expensive physical objects—will also have to leverage collaboration with people who can't be there to put hands on. Tasks like rapid prototyping and product engineering and lab work, for example, require interaction with expensive gear that can't be dropped into a virtual collaboration space (yet) but can benefit from visiting and remote collaborators.

The strength of the office is collaboration, so offices will have to become collaboration-centric.

That's going to require a new kind of collaborative technology that does a better job of ensuring critical data is secured in ways that prevents it transiting a server in China or something (not like any video conferencing company would ever do that, right?) and a higher level of trust in those who work with it remotely. And even if the last six months haven't put a stake through the heart of corporate culture barriers to collaboration, it may still take a protracted internal struggle to make all this work. Some people may become nostalgic for the days when Office Space seemed like a documentary.

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