The Great Office Debate
– the great future of work Debate 2021 #1
The tidal wave of noise in the media about work from home (WFH) and the spotlight on remote working is one of the surprisingly significant by-products of these pandemic times. The massively impactful WFH experiment of 2020 has opened a Pandora’s box of contentious issues, challenges and opportunities. Over the coming weeks I plan to try to make sense of what is a rapidly changing situation.
HYBRID RUNNING OUT OF STEAM?
Mulling on these over the Easter weekend having participated in a BBC4 PM Programme interview with Carolyn Quinn on the future of remote working; I concluded that there are a lot of mixed messages out there. The BBC were interested in exploring whether the move to hybrid or remote working had run out of steam? This was prompted by an announcement by Google that their staff can return on a voluntary basis before September 2021. According to media commentary Google seemed to be bucking the trend.
Given the stature of Google, many companies will take this as a signal that we can all consider reverting to normal? But what is normal given our experiences of the last year? It is clear to me that the debate about office versus Work from Home (WFH) is only part of the picture. We are trying to look at this multi-dimensional issue using a one size fits all approach. For example, what may work for a Technology company may not be applicable in other sectors. During the interview I did make the point that the BBC cannot run its Newsroom from home. It can do part of the operation but not the entire show.
REVERTING TO NORMAL?
The 2020 Lockdown experience has prompted us all to take a step back and look at how we do certain things such as commuting. We are now asking some very fundamental questions about the way we live, our lives and how we run our businesses. It has come as a surprise to many leaders that the wheels did not come off during this enforced absence from the office. Indeed, it seems in certain situations productivity increased. Plus, lots of us for the first time ever started to question the logic of commuting. This is interesting given the link with carbon reduction and sustainability concerns. Clearly, the continuation of WFH en-masse on a permanent basis is not a runner. We are social animals, and we need to meet somewhere to collaborate, to be creative, to socialise and to solve problems. Therefore, I don’t think the office building itself is obsolete, but the system needs a massive overhaul. Not only in terms of how we consume office space but how it is provided and operated.
BABY TO GIANT STEPS
In the decades leading up to the 2020 lockdown we saw various small-scale shifts to the immovable iceberg of office work, paper processing, hierarchies and the containers for these activities the office building. I content that the Pandemic has acted as a huge accelerant to these baby steps of change. Since publishing my book Where is my Office, I have argued that the enforced work from home experiment has not only changed the game but the entire stadium.
Right across the globe we have seen a shift to a different location for doing office work, we’ve had to work differently, and we’ve changed not only our behaviours but our opinions about office work! Furthermore, this phenomenon has had a huge impact on the mindsets of both office workers and their bosses. Rather than focus on an analogue type ‘either or’ debate I wonder if we are seeing the emergence of a patchwork quilt variety of solutions? All of which is underpinned by a massive shift from a fixed way of doing office work to a much more fluid one.
If it is possible for us all to starting looking at things in a very different manner, could this unlock new possibilities? Or are we constrained by the anchors of 20th century mindsets and practices to stick with more of the same?