The Future of the Office

While COVID-19 will inevitably bring about a fresh watershed, office design has never been static. This man-made landscape has always reflected changes in work culture, society and technology. The office of the 1980s was a hierarchy of boxes; bosses had enclosed offices while employees had the infamous cubicle. Societal reactions against neoliberalism and radical advances in technology led to the open-plan, collaborative offices started by California tech start-ups, which eventually permeated through all other industries. 

Most recently, offices have been embracing leisure and recreation in their design. Pre-pandemic these “activity-based” offices were all the rage. High-end offices include bars, cafes, gyms, and even napping rooms, adapting to a cultural movement away from “the 9 to 5”. Offices began to resemble university libraries; open 24 hours, open-plan, with plenty of tech facilities. Then COVID-19 arrived.

Businesses had to move quickly to reinvent themselves during the pandemic, for the first time putting one hitherto disregarded factor above all others; hygiene. Offices like ours pivoted quickly to create a new geography of one-way systems, see-through separators, hand sanitisers and the swathe of signs reminding us to ‘wash out hands’, ‘keep two metres apart’, ‘one at a time’ etc. that will surely come to characterise this period. But this new “COVID-safe office” will, hopefully, be a short-lived innovation as vaccinations are rolled out nationwide. 

COVID-19 has brought to the fore what we don’t need and what we miss

That’s what we can hope for in the future, but right now we’re in the middle of a total lockdown. Almost all offices are empty with employees working remotely from home. What was most astonishing was that this was totally possible. Technology like Zoom, Google Docs, Microsoft Teams etc. had made remote work possible years before COVID-19 made it a necessity. 

As John Seabrook put it in his recent New Yorker article: ‘The technology industry gave birth to the modern office, and then created the tools to do without it.’ But this leads us to ask why remote work hadn’t replaced office work once the capability was there? Why did it take a pandemic to force businesses to make use of remote working? 

For a start, it seems that savings made from leasing offices can be outweighed by the downsides. For example, in creative industries, the lack of collaboration can be harmful. Yahoo in 2012 and IBM in 2017, two of the pioneers of what was then termed “teleworking”, banned employees from working from home after falling profits were attributed to lack of collaboration. 

Similarly, research conducted by the Harvard Business Review from 2008-2012 found that remote workers communicated 80% less than those working in the office: ‘If team members need to interact to achieve project milestones on time, you don’t want them working remotely (HBR).’ Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said in an interview with the New York Times that employees were more  productive while working from home, but still wouldn’t advocate fully remote work as the way forward, stating concerns for employees’ mental health long term. Replacing office work with all-remote work would be ‘“replacing one dogma with another dogma”’. 

There are also downsides to remote work for the employees. There’s the potential, in a hybrid work environment, of forgetting about remote workers, or favouring in-person employees over their remote counterparts. There’s also the risk of exploitation when workers are contactable and virtually “at the office” 24/7. 

Again, with remote workers companies must employ more resources to make sure mental health indicators aren’t missed by line managers and ensuring that workers have an ergonomic and safe work environment at home. Working from home has really brought to the fore a hitherto invisible class divide between those that have a kitted-out home office and the others, perched on a corner of the kitchen table while their flatmates and families live and work around them. 

The evidence shows that while we may not need offices, we do want them. As I’ve already said, the office reflects our culture, and in an age where mindfulness and mental health has rightly been brought to the fore, we shouldn’t overlook what employees want. There are some things people miss that simply can’t be replicated remotely. 

The ability to build friendships; accrue social capital; a reason to leave the house and get outside; and of course, the office parties. Sure, the Zoom Christmas party was fun, but it’s not quite the same, is it? The problems brought about by remote working indicate that some kind of hybrid remote/physical workspace is inevitable. So, if the office is here to stay, what will it look like?

Exciting new ideas for the future workplace

In the same way that you can’t fully renovate your house while living in it, previous developments in office design have been gradual – after all, it’s hard to do your best work in a building site. Now, however, we have an unprecedented chance to revamp the whole workplace. We can start from square one and ask what the purpose of the office of the future should be. In an interview with The Spaces, Mikael Benfredj, founder of the co-working space, Patchwork, suggests that the ‘“workspace” will become a “meetingspace.”’ 

It looks as though the rows of desks and computers that were the bulk of office space will be replaced by meeting rooms and amenities like cafeterias, games rooms and childcare facilities. Zoom calls have provided a window into the lives of working parents, making visible the difficulties of juggling childcare with regular work hours. Hopefully going forward flexible working hours or even on-site childcare will be the norm for working parents. 

As ever, changes in technology and culture will affect how the office of the future is designed. The popularity of audio-visual (AV) media was growing before the pandemic; but the impossibility of meeting face-to-face has led to AV jumping in to fill the gap. Business have now taken on board the importance of going beyond written content, creating podcasts, video blogs and taking advantage of new video content capabilities on social media. To enable this it’s likely we’ll see more offices with in-built video conferencing abilities and dedicated AV rooms; as we plan to do at Sussex Innovation Falmer. 

World famous architect Lord Norman Foster believes the office of the future will be greener, both more sustainable and incorporating nature. The popularity of walking meetings and the movement toward more greenery and less concrete mean that office gardens will definitely be a feature of the future office. This poses an obvious challenge for city centre offices. But, evidence suggests that another product of the pandemic is an acceleration of the so-called “doughnut effect”

The commute, like the 9 to 5, has fallen out of favour in recent years. People want to spend less time and money on travel, and to accommodate their employees’ wellbeing, businesses are moving their offices into suburban areas, while also saving money on the cost of city-centre square-footage. Benfredj also predicts a move towards more shared office space, as companies split their employees between several smaller offices, shared with other businesses. 

Going forward we must ask ourselves; what’s the purpose?

Now that employees have the tools to do their bread and butter work at home, the parts of the office that used to be considered extras (meeting rooms, cafeterias, outdoor spaces, specialised audio-visual rooms) will be the heart of the future office. It’s also likely that this office will look very different to the ones we’re used to. 

A return to the minimal, open-plan, collaborative office isn’t inevitable. In fact, it could be a good time to replace this model which has recently come under heavy criticism. Not only because of the dangers of infection exposed by COVID-19, but also over doubts about its efficacy in encouraging collaboration. An extensive study by the Harvard Business Review found that open-plan offices actually led to a decline in meaningful interactions, finding that ‘face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices’. 

The move towards hybrid workplaces means we have the opportunity to rectify the faults with pre-pandemic open offices and create a mixed environment incorporating in-person collaboration, and remote, focussed work. If we imagine such a workplace where the real work is done elsewhere, we’re left with simple a “place”. A blank slate with which to redefine what the office could be. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the erosion of the divisions between “home” and “work”. Quite literally, companies are now moving their offices geographically closer to their employee’s homes. Their offices now have the comfort and amenities of home, while employees’ houses have been kitted out as remote workstations. To stay ahead of the curve, companies need to embrace this change. There are a lot of exciting ideas being pitched, but what the office of the future will ultimately look like is very much up for discussion. We at Sussex Innovation are looking forward to being a part of it. 

For more information about the future of the office, you can access our whitepaper, titled "The Office Is Dead, Long Live The Office!" for free by clicking the link.