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Nov 29, 2020

The Great Future of the Office Debate – the shift from fixed to fluid?


I wonder what will future historians say about the 2020’s? Will they see these ‘pandemic times’ as a milestone which marked the end of Industrial Age thinking and the birth of the new Digitally-Enabled Era?  Dare I say the Age of the Human?

Taking a relatively small element of the overall picture – the way we work in offices – one could make the case that the debate raging about a return to the office is a mere sideshow to much wider and more complex issues concerning how we live, learn, work and play.  The debate about the future of the office is not and never has been just about large-scale working from home (WFH) on a fixed basis. There is a much bigger question afoot, a real paradigm shift. One that impacts not only where we work: but how and when we do it and who does this office work?  I see this as the shift from ‘fixed to fluid’.

A potent cocktail of dilemmas

Many business leaders having survived the first wave of lockdown challenges are now turning their minds to making sense of how they will navigate the new wave of uncertainty.  Their experiences of dealing with mass remote working have exposed considerations which have not been on their radars pre-pandemic. Taking all their business issues together results in quite a potent cocktail of dilemmas, for example:

  • Workforce management was difficult enough pre-pandemic – is shifting to a distributed model the way forward? Is there any choice in the matter?
  • Lockdown has generated newly discovered operational efficiencies; can these be maintained or is it better to revert to traditional working practices?
  • Does it make sense to redirect savings from real estate expenses to employee well-being and benefits?
  • Productivity during lockdown seems to have held up for the most part, although WFH seems to have a lot of merit – is it sustainable?
  • Does presenteeism the ‘Holy of Holies’ of people management hold up anymore? Has the lockdown experience shattered the long-held and cherished connection between productivity and presence. Does this call for a more trust-based management style?
  • Office work has always revolved around a physical place with four walls and a roof.  Is there merit in looking at the potential for multiple office work solutions? Or is it safer to stick with an either/or choice of office work and WFH?

Seeing the wood for the trees

When you stand back and view this in the round and try to see the wood for the trees, an interesting picture begins to emerge. For the first time ever, we are exploring the possibility of how much we can get done without offices. It has taken a virus to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about how and when we work and in what settings we need to come together to get this work done. According to Mark Thompson the former CEO of the New York Times “one of the few positive benefits of coronavirus crisis may well be a further acceleration of our transition from the regimented offices of the past and the archaic management philosophy that built them to something more flexible, more individuated, more human -shaped”

Office buildings themselves will remain and will not be consigned to the scrapheap of the working environment. But their purpose has altered unequivocally.  Yet I suggest that the ‘home versus office’ debate is only one element of this paradigm shift. Since the recent enforced experiment of working beyond the confines of the traditional office demonstrates that we now have real choice. It has also opened up many other questions into how we can reshape our working landscape. 

To be continued…

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