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  • Writer's pictureDan Wakelin

Through the (office) looking glass...

Originally published on Linkedin on 30 March 2020

One thing we can be sure of is that things will never be the same again. What seems less clear at the moment is quite how much will change. The last couple of weeks has been the largest remote working experiment ever, and we’ve seen mixed levels of success. For the best part of the last decade, futurists have been claiming that the office is dead, and that we’ll all work from other places. Overnight, their prediction came true, but not in the way that anyone expected. Is this the new normal, or are we going to see a shift over time in how we use physical office space?

In my role as a workplace consultant I have the fortune to work with people from a range of sectors; this position means my colleagues and I are uniquely placed to bring the best learning from one sector into others and to facilitate the sharing of best practice. We work closely with people at all levels of the organisation to understand their needs and develop workplace strategies or change programmes to support the way they want to work. Sometimes we talk to people who don’t care about the office; they just want somewhere to get their head down and concentrate. One thing that has changed over the last two weeks is that no one we have spoken to is saying that anymore!

As huge numbers of people get used to working from home, with many combining this with their new role as headteacher, there are already questions about what the office will look like when we are all allowed to once again leave the safety of our homes. Will we rush out as soon as we are able to resume our ‘normal’ (whatever that means!) lives, or will we use this time to reflect on what really works for us as individuals, and change our routines for good? And what of the office? How will real estate and workplace professionals respond if our approach to work is forever changed?

My prediction is that we will see a shift in how we use offices. If one of the virtues of working from home is the ability to concentrate on focused work, perhaps the office will become the place that we go to connect with others, share ideas (and coffee!), and do all the things that make us human. The gradual transition that has been happening over many years to favour the more social and collaborative activities will accelerate rapidly. That would require a seismic change in how offices are designed, and our expectations; Leesman data tells us that the most important activity to cater for is individual focused work at the desk; perhaps that will start to change…

There will undoubtedly be some who see this as an opportunity to reduce their office footprint and save some money. We’ve seen now that home working is possible, so surely, it’s a fair assumption that we don’t need as much office space. Let’s take a breath and see where this all goes. As my mother used to tell me, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Certainly, a more agile, bespoke, and perhaps even ‘curated’ approach to office space might be possible at the end of all this, so long as that decision is made based on evidence. At the moment we don’t fully understand the pros and cons of working from home on such a huge scale, or which activities are best done in the office, and which can be done elsewhere. I suspect there won’t be a universal truth around this – different companies will want and need different things from their office space.

Nobody truly knows where we will be in a year, indeed the next few weeks seem pretty uncertain. One thing is clear; this is an opportunity to define our new normal…

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