The Economist Bartelby article of August 1st – ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ struck a chord as we consider our return to the office. Rather than just face trade-offs, I wonder if now is the time to think about that chain – the office – and ask ourselves what is its purpose?
In recent weeks, the binary debate of working from home/ remote work versus a return to the office has attracted a host of press commentary. Most people now realise that we have reached an inflection point not only in how we use the office, but how we do office work. The difference now is that most business leaders’ thoughts are in the mix, as they have started asking themselves searching questions. Yet I suggest the home versus office debate is only part of the picture. This enforced experiment in working beyond the confines of the traditional office shows us that we now have real choice – it also opens up many other questions.
Added to this, the last four months and the likely continuation of the lockdown in some shape through the dark months of autumn and winter will allow all of us to deeply reflect on what is important to us, for the first time ever. One must also consider the behaviour forming effect of a lengthy lockdown, where people naturally adapt to the circumstance they find themselves in.
There is much to commend the office in terms of the collaboration, creativity and social aspects of how we work. The key question to my mind is the fixed nature of the pre-pandemic system – everything revolved around a physical place with four walls. I recall reading Charles Handy’s ‘Second Curve’ which was published in 2015 and has a thought-provoking chapter on ‘The Workplace’. Charles talks about how odd it seems to watch streams of people pouring out of railway stations to sit in box-like cubes or team-tables to communicate with others in the same building by email on a ‘9-to-5’ basis, Monday to Friday. These are thoughts Charles had many years ago and now as many of us have experienced remote working, we are also beginning to question if there could be smarter or improved ways of using existing buildings. Not only that but we are re-thinking our work patterns and how office workers wish to work in the 21st century. These strategic issues lie at the heart of how organisations function, how society will adjust and how human beings will make better use of their lives.
Take one example the movement in the real estate sector to more flexible occupational models. Much has been written on this topic and at the start of 2020, the received wisdom was that flexible options would grow significantly to approximately 30% of the total market in about 5 years’ time. I think we will see a much faster and more expansive growth of flexible options as organisations and the people who work for them seek unprecedented and varied levels of flexibility. Has the age of truly distributed working arrived?
Even more reason to take a holistic view of work, the workforce, and the physical workplace. Should we consider office work in a different light and not one bounded within the traditional working week and eight-hour day? Maybe we need to think of the ‘individual as the workplace’? After all the important element is the outcome of the work produced and not where and what time it is done. We must move away from siloed thinking and join the dots of people, process, and place. Necessity is after all the mother of invention and I believe we will need to think carefully on what is the purpose of the office in the 21st-century?