How COVID Is Changing the Office

What the pandemic has revealed about this vital space

Recently I had a long-overdue catch-up with a few friends who happen to hold leadership roles that span the creative industry. We were discussing the challenges around ideating, managing, and collaborating remotely. Some (surprisingly) mixed responses surfaced. Ultimately, the conversation arrived at the $64,000 question: Is there a collective need to return to the office? I won’t bore you with the details of our debate, but my takeaway was this: Despite the fact that remote work is here to stay, the office is now more vital than ever.

The vast majority of the world’s offices have been created either in the vein of a Dilbert parody, with little inspiration and even less space to socialize; or alternatively, in the form of high-density “collaboration zones” that make it difficult to think—let alone get work done.

To amplify this dichotomy, industry experts—and pretty much everyone else—have for years debated the merits and pitfalls of open plan versus more enclosed landscapes: the value of quirky, brand-forward “playgrounds” versus slick, tech-centric environments designed to enhance efficiency and productivity. But a quick tour of any city will unearth workplaces that mostly fall somewhere in the middle—neither creative playground nor high-performance machine.

According to the Leesman Index in 2019, only 59.2% of all global respondents felt their workplace positively contributed to a sense of community, while 61.1% agreed that their workplace enabled them to be productive. There was an obvious opportunity to improve these figures even before COVID hit. But after seven months of working from home, there still appear to be mixed feelings about returning to the office, according to ManpowerGroup’s What Workers Want survey.

The challenge our industry has is to take this opportunity and re-imagine our offices, to make them not only desirable places, but functional business assets in this new world of hybrid work. I believe the vision for the future office should start with observing the following key lessons we’ve learned through the lens of 2020:

Diversity Does Not Mean Equality
Many of us have felt the impact of diversity on the hundreds—if not thousands—of video calls over the last seven months. Suddenly, we are all on equal footing, sitting around the same virtual table with no hierarchy attached to our seat or its position. And while we sit, staring at our colleagues in small frames on our computers, we can’t help but coo at the children (two-legged and four-legged) who occasionally barge onto the screen, surreptitiously peruse impressively curated bookshelves, or knowingly smile at a kitchen table littered with the remains of the previous night’s repast. Our personal lives have been brought to the forefront, humanizing us while at the same time showcasing the myriad of ways in which we live.

In a recent interview about Facebook’s own return to work, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged his effort to take up a new hiring strategy in response to the increase in remote work: to diversify his workforce geographically and hire from farther afield. The onus to have all employees close to an office has been lifted, leveling the playing field in the war for talent while allowing companies to reduce their overhead by decentralizing their workforce.

The flipside of this, however, is that although we are all equal on a digital platform, the experience on the other side of the screen can be largely inequitable. Whilst remote work allows us to hire the best talent from around the world, the truth is the full potential of said talent cannot be realized if their environments work against them. A veteran manager might share a similar work-from-home experience in London as in Austin, Texas, but it is unlikely that a recent university graduate will have the same living standard. Additionally, those who live in costly metropolitan areas are distinctly disadvantaged if their home “office” cannot facilitate a positive remote work experience. Less experienced, lower paid employees will undoubtedly be hindered here without the income to afford a luxurious home space.

Equally disadvantaged are single parents with children at home, or those who flat-share. That said, a future office designed with this in mind can ensure that all of its employees—especially those who don't have favorable conditions working from home—will be equipped with the tools and spaces they need to do their best work. Offices are—and will continue to be—places for social gathering and in-person collaboration, as well as a supportive location to do focus work for those who cannot accomplish it elsewhere.

All Hail the Petri Dish
Years ago, my colleagues and I would describe the ideal office as one continuous experiment—a  “petri dish” of ideas, collaboration, and ways of working that would evolve over time. Whilst it would be ill-advised to use such terminology these days, the concept remains relevant. I’ve spoken to many who are nostalgic for the office, especially the casual interactions. Social interaction not only contributes to culture, community, and all the warm, fuzzy feels that make us loyal to a company; it’s also necessary for professional and personal development. Junior hires are often pulled straight out of academia, with little to no experience working in a formal organization. Prioritizing workload, communicating within and between teams, navigating organizational structure, and learning client or project protocols are just a few of the first hard-earned lessons in any career—made tougher when you have little to no social or physical connection with your peers, your manager, or your team.

When Apple released this year’s This is Apple (At Work) ad, it hit home with many struggling with remote teamwork. And while the ad suggests that successful remote collaboration is still viable (with the right technology, naturally), it indirectly highlights a bigger challenge: nurturing and motivating individuals so that they can, in turn, collaborate effectively.

future offices should be embraced as vehicles for individual growth and nurture. Learning doesn’t just happen in the four walls of a classroom, virtual or physical; often it happens when we aren’t actively pursuing it. Meetings, presentations, lunches, round robins, and, yes, a chat over drinks—it is through these means that we develop ourselves and our relationships, formally and informally. Engaging face-to-face is an integral part of learning what makes each of us tick, thereby making us better employees, colleagues, and humans.

The Office as a Safe Haven
Whilst the ability to work from home has given many of us a chance to improve our work-life balance, there have been downsides as well. Mental health has become a top priority for many companies as the stress of the pandemic, uncertainty over job security, and increased isolation have taken their toll. One study of remote workers found loneliness to be a top challenge, even before coronavirus struck. Email and videoconferencing enable us to stay continuously connected, but do not necessarily facilitate good communication. Signs of a personal struggle, for example, are less obvious through the frame of a Microsoft Teams window.

For many, the office is an escape—a refuge from a chaotic home, a way to connect with other people, or simply a familiar place for those who need routine. With the line between work and home blurred, many grapple to mentally “switch gears” between roles as manager and parent, or colleague and partner. We take off one hat only to stumble into another in the brief interludes between calls and deadlines. The emotional toll is real, but the true impact on our long-term well-being is not yet known; we are not yet a year into this new reality.

What we do know is the physical boundary of an office can provide space to transition as well as support the needs of a neurodivergent workforce. A future office landscape should be designed around the notion of inclusivity, which in turn will build a sense of security and belonging—for everyone.

I believe the office can and will emerge stronger post-pandemic, as long as we embrace what this past year has taught us and apply these principles to future designs. Nothing says these considerations have to add to the build-out cost, but the results could create destinations that draw people back, time and again. It’s hard to put a value to a space that enables diversity, enhances personal and professional growth, and builds healthy communities. We should not let the insights we’ve gained from almost a year of remote work go to waste. In many ways, adapting to life with coronavirus has made us all more human. Now let’s ensure we do everything we can to make work human too.

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