A couple of days I was a guest on ABC’s The Drum program. One of the questions I was asked was the degree to which we will continue to work from home after the pandemic.
For my response watch the brief video below, or see the full program online, this segment starts at 45:00.
Below the video I describe in detail the forces shaping the relative roles of home, office, and ‘third space’ in a post-coronavirus future of work.
Acceleration of existing trends
Given my long-time focus on the future of work, for many years I have been studying and writing about the shift from office work.
Now suddenly these issues have swiftly come to the fore, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced almost every significant organization globally to adopt remote working practices to at least some degree.
Advantages and disadvantages of working from home
While there are real advantages for many people in working from home, many others are hating the enforced isolation and lack of socialization of working from home.
In 2010 I described the factors driving the rise of the ‘cloud workplace’:
There are of course pointed upsides to working from home, not least forgoing frustrating commutes, as well as greater personal flexibility. But some people find it hard to get themselves motivated, and many miss the daily banter and social interactions of the office. This is not a trivial issue – the vagaries of working from home will be a shaping force on society and how companies operate.
There are also compelling economic reasons for working from home, including organizational and national competitiveness:
When you can offer work anywhere in the country, it attracts incredibly well qualified people. Any organization that does that has an advantage over those that do not.
Distributed work enables a nation’s talent and expertise to be tapped as never before. Once people’s expertise and talent can be better matched to where it has value, there are enormous benefits. It can build national competitiveness and social well-being to a massive degree.
Yet remote work will only ever be part of the picture of an engaged economy and workforce.
When will it be time to return to the office?
Many will welcome the easing or potential end of social distancing and be keen to get back to working alongside their colleagues.
However it is not that simple. The timeline for restrictions to end is completely unforeseeable, so organizations need to plan for an extended period of working from home.
The advantages of distributed work, often including enhanced productivity as well as lower costs, are becoming apparent for the first time to many companies.
Some companies are simply taking the opportunity to shift to completely remote work, not renewing office leases and saving substantial costs.
Why offices will not go extinct
Yet offices will continue to exist, as they provide the glue of trust and collaboration which are at the heart of any high-performance organization today.
As I wrote in 2012 about why offices will still exist even as alternatives proliferate:
When we think about the future of workspace, given the massive shift to distributed work, the question arises of whether centralized office will still have a reason to exist in the future.
Some futurists suggest the massive city offices of today will transition into “vertical farms” which will be converted for food production. It’s a nice idea, but we’re a long way from that happening.
Some of the reasons that large organizations will continue to exist are predicated on capital and infrastructure. However there is also real value from deep relationships of mutual trust that enable effective collaboration.
Trust is built from extended experience of how your counterpart works across all conditions, including of stress. It is augmented by extended social interactions that allow you to know your colleague as a complete person, not just a worker.
While an immense amount can be achieved in virtual teams, the reality is that extended physical proximity is an enormous enabler of mutual experience and trust, which in turn supports collaboration, innovation, and high-performance teams.
In addition, it is very difficult to sustain a strong corporate culture without people spending significant time together.
The rise of the ‘third space’
Coworking spaces have of course become a major factor in the commercial real estate and working space market for some years now, though the demise of WeWork has made some question its future.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of coworking spaces is that they are not just for individuals.
It is not just micro-businesses that are increasingly using co-working spaces. Mid-sized businesses are also using them to shift from an HQ ‘Headquarters’ mentality to a CQ ‘Connected Quarters’ approach in which they seek talent, ideas, community and customers as well as giving their workers flexibility. Co-working spaces are perfect to help talented staff work in an attractive space but avoid unnecessary commuting, to set up branches in other cities, and to connect into the communities that will drive your business forward.
As I have argued for a long time, these ‘third spaces’ have an important role to play for major employers too.
Work is becoming increasingly location-independent, with employees dividing their time between traditional offices, home, and co-working ‘third spaces’ that provide attractive collective work spaces far closer to home.
Large companies, rather than forcing employees to travel to a single central office every day, can establish a series of suburban centers, potentially shared with other employers, that minimize commute time, provide an attractive and well-resourced working environment, and enable both local and remote meetings for workers.
A massive shift to flexibility in work structures
The key point here is about flexibility.
Work should not be ONLY in the office, or ONLY in the home. Some organizations may have employees come to a large HQ once or twice a week, go to a suburban ‘third space’ office a couple of days a week, and the other days from home or as suits them.
You can be sure this kind of company would be find it far easier to attract talent than a more rigid competitor.
If this happens it will change cities as well as the structure of work. People’s movement patterns will shift and reduce the need for transport infrastructure.
An opportunity for well-designed balance in work
I have long said that “as long as the universe is changing, there will be opportunities”.
One of the biggest potential opportunities from this crisis is to reconfigure the structure, balance, and nature of work, throwing out a mountain of old assumptions and presuppositions about how it should be done.
Once we recognize that work should not be just office or just home, and should be complemented by other well-designed, compelling alternatives, we can start from a blank slate in imagining and creating the right balance between all the alternatives to suit an organization, its culture, and its staff.
This will be far better for all staff, improve productivity, and yield exceptional rewards in limiting waste and carbon emissions.
Let’s seize this opportunity.