March 2, 2021

Yogi Berra once quipped, “It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.” Right now one of the top “known unknowns” concerns if and when and how workers will return to their offices. Many can’t wait to return to the office in person and resume business as usual. Others believe that there is no going back and that working from home is here to stay forever. Then there are those who predict the ultimate reality probably lies somewhere in the middle. Regardless of which camp you fall into, many of us were surprised to see just how seamlessly millions of employees relocated to perform productive work from their kitchen tables and living rooms.  

Technology played a substantial role in facilitating this transition. Back in the 90’s without broadband services and video conferencing, it would have been all but impossible to maintain the current levels of connectivity to a remote workforce. But even with the ready technological capabilities, pre-COVID flexible-office companies had a market-share of under 5%.  

After the rapid forced transition to working from home, many former office workers enjoyed the time freed up from commuting. But as the crisis dragged along, side effects including isolation, fatigue and mental stress rose to the fore. Moreover, not all work-from-home situations are created equal. A DINK couple who have decamped to a vacation mountain aerie face a far different situation than a family with multiple children under the age of five living in a small apartment. And with fewer boundaries between work and leisure, some have wondered whether “working from home” is turning into “living from work.”

It all adds up to a pent up demand to return to the office in some capacity. A recent study from JLL, a commercial real estate firm, found that “3 in 4 workers hope to return to an office at some point in the future.” Once it’s safe to return to the office, however, the pandemic will still have left an enduring impression on employees’ expectations of the office experience. 

What we have learned from the pandemic 

The pandemic demonstrated employees can and will be productive without being physically present at the office. COVID has helped to transform the stigma that working from home equals sitting on the sofa dressed in pyjamas, unproductive to the reality of sitting on the sofa dressed in pyjamas being productive.

Levels of productivity also depend on the personality and seniority of employees. Senior roles familiar with company processes and culture, part of an already established, well-functioning team and equipped with an adequate work-at-home set up might be the ideal remote work candidates. Less experienced junior staff might find it more difficult to find the mentorship, informal learning and networking opportunities they would usually encounter being present at the office. Gen Z is the first generation to have never known a world without the internet but they are also a generation placing great emphasis on culture and values. According to Deloitte’s Welcome to Generation Z study, 77% of respondents “prioritize working at organizations whose values align with their own” and “expect much more personalization in how they want to be treated by their employer.”

From a more flexible working style to fewer hours spent in traffic, there are many benefits gained with working from home. In many cases, remote work and the increased flexibility have boosted both happiness and productivity. At the same time, the pandemic has also caused employees to worry about losing their jobs, which in turn may have created an artificial boost in productivity (and hours worked) influenced by the changing and uncertain conditions of the labor market. A study from Harvard, Stanford and New York University found that the average workday under lockdown was nearly 50 minutes longer than pre-pandemic. The Economist named this “the modern version of Parkinson’s Law in which working hours have expanded to soak up the extra minutes and more.”

Necessity remains the mother of invention. When we are forced, we are able to adapt our habits. Within days, people shifted their grocery purchases online, ordered take-out from their favorite restaurants, enrolled in distance learning classes and repurposed their living rooms into home gyms. The ultimate question remains to be answered as the weeks and months ahead unfold: what new habits will stick around after the pandemic

Post-pandemic: will convenience consume culture? 

Many workers discovered new ways to work and live during the pandemic that enhanced efficiency. Why visit the store when you can simply have food delivered to your door? Why spend your time waiting in line when you can be at home with your family? Why go to the office when you can get the work done at home with equal alacrity? Saving time and money on commuting is great, but that simple calculus ignores the reality that humans are social creatures.

Workplaces are complex social ecosystems and business is a social phenomenon. John Moran, Chief Executive of JLL Ireland, stresses the importance of the office in providing three things: colleagues, culture and collaboration. We gained efficiency but are missing the heartbeat, energy and creativity from collaboration and spontaneous encounters. 

The office experience 2.0 

To come full circle, the truth of what the office will look like will likely balance efficiency and collaboration. The pandemic has forced us to rethink the purpose and meaning of the office. While the office did start out as a necessity ruled by a paper-based system, rigid hierarchy and now antediluvian technology such as  telegrams, the workplace has evolved into something more complex, very much forming a part of our culture and identity. 

Many experts have predicted the rise of hybrid work arrangements where employees will spend some of their time working from home for solo-focused work and joining their colleagues for the rest of the week for “collaboration days” — a term introduced by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Planning the return to the office, employers may prioritize spaces fostering collaboration, creativity and innovation, dedicating office space to activities that employees are missing when working from home. 

Learn more about ‘The Future of the Office’ in our upcoming series:

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