Nine to five comes Alive: Forget the office as you know it

The office – as a place and even as an idea – is going through a radical overhaul, fueled by developments in technology, innovative design and changing attitudes to work. We look at some of the transformations that are already taking place – and at what the future might hold.

Until recently, the future of the office involved all sorts of groundbreaking ideas for work environments to facilitate social interaction that inspired creativity and productivity. The corona crisis has, however temporarily, created a void in those spaces as we find the necessity of social distancing thrust upon us all. As the crisis changes our thinking and perception of the world, our office environments will be transformed yet again.

Even before COVID-19 started taking its toll on the world, a quiet revolution had begun at the office, transforming both the traditional office space and the way we use it – supposing we still use it at all.

With more employees working flexible hours rather than the traditional nine to five and spending some or all of their working hours at home or in a co-working space, the question arises as to whether there is a future for the office as we know it – especially once we return to a state of normalcy.

Ever-increasing broadband connectivity, cloud data storage and the advent of Skype and other teleconferencing tools make it much more feasible to work from home – or from anywhere. Add to this the high cost of living in major cities, and some people now opt to live and work in rural areas, taking meetings via apps such as Skype or GoToMeeting and only traveling to the city office when absolutely necessary.

For many companies, this versatility seems to be paying off. A 2018 survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 65% of managers in the U.K. feel that flexible working enhances commitment and motivation, while 82% believe it improves productivity. Other studies have produced similar findings. Now, hundreds of millions of people have no choice but to manage from home. The impact that will have remains to be seen. Will they want to embrace their new-found freedom from commutes, or will many miss engaging with co-workers, face-to-face meetings – and perhaps even the food easily available from the office canteen?

The value of social interaction

The traditional office has been changing; therefore, many may find it an attractive space to return to. The increase in the number of freelancers and small business startups, for example, has resulted in co-working spaces becoming a significant part of the contemporary working world.

Alison Hackett, founder of publishers 21st Century Renaissance, based in Dublin, found that a co-working space in the city center was perfect for her needs when she started her business. “While it’s wonderful, setting up your own business can also be a lonely experience,” says Hackett. “And I liked the idea of going into an actual workplace, like everybody else, and having colleagues to chat to.”

The space also provided some of its members with unexpected opportunities. “Because there was an emphasis on creativity, some really interesting collaborations happened as a result of having, say, a designer working at one desk and an architect three desks up who needed something designed.”

But, as attractive as co-working spaces can be, for most people, particularly in larger organizations, going to the main office has still been the major part of their working life.

Dr. Peggie Rothe, development director at U.K.- based Leesman consultants, believes there will always be a role for the company office. “I definitely see that there are all these flexible options, like co-working spaces and so forth that are complementing what organizations have,” says Rothe, “but I don’t see large organizations working toward a structure where they wouldn’t even have an office. We need to have a place where we can gather, where we can build our sense of community and meet our colleagues, and so forth.”

Leesman’s research supports Rothe’s observation. In their survey of more than 600,000 respondents, 92% said they predominantly work at the main office, only rarely or occasionally working anywhere else.


65

The percentage of managers in the U.K. who feel that flexible working helps commitment and motivation; 82% believe it improves productivity

50

The percentage of workers in the U.S. who will be freelance by 2027


Brighter, busier, more diversified

But even for that majority who do still work at the office and will likely return there, things are quickly being transformed. Both co-working spaces and corporate offices are being designed in more interesting ways, including brighter decor and various kinds of working areas that foster creative interaction and the meeting of minds. In this environment- and health-conscious era, the idea of bringing nature indoors with floor-to-ceiling glass for light, large plants or so-called green walls and water features has become popular. There is an emphasis, too, on adapting to the cultures of different countries.

In Sweden, for example, the WeWork workspaces have large, communal lunch tables, while those in the U.K. have smaller eating areas, as people there tend to eat in isolation.

“I think we have now realized that we do different things during our work day,” says Rothe, “and so even if we may do some individual, focused work, we also attend meetings, we attend virtual meetings, we speak on the phone, we may need to do some deepdive reading, or collaborate with our colleagues, and so forth, and so the office of the future is one designed to support all the different things that people do.”

And it will likely be a more welcoming sort of place, taking inspiration from the neo-hippie ethos of Silicon Valley. In Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California, fresh organic food and barista coffee is constantly available, and there are fitness and wellness centers, group cooking classes and even a bowling alley.

But perhaps the most revolutionary office of all is The Edge, the 40,000-square-meter Deloitte company headquarters in Amsterdam, described as “the greenest, most intelligent building in the world.” In the building, which generates more electricity than it uses, employees have no fixed workspaces and can set their individual climate and lighting preferences via an app.

Employees today want and anticipate flexibility in their work – and more and more they expect their office to be a well-designed, healthy – and ecologically sustainable – place.

“That’s actually one of the trends we see,” says Rothe, “that the workplace is increasingly being seen as worth investing in, that you need to see it as an asset, rather than just a cost that you want to dial down.” With the corona crisis, however, more employees than ever before have been working from home. It remains to be seen if, post-crisis, people may prefer the flexibility that working from home provides, and what changes it will bring to working relationships and environments.

“We’ll probably never be the same again,” Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources, told news website BuzzFeed. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.” ― Cathy Dillon


Published: April 2020


Image: Danae Diaz for Delivered.