Reports of the Death of the Workplace Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For millions of office workers around the world, work has been consciously uncoupled from its usual location for the first time. And what’s been pleasantly surprising — interrupting children, pets, and roommates notwithstanding — is that most people are pretty good at working from home.

But why should we be surprised? Key corporate functions have been cloud-based for years and billions of frequent flyer miles show that lots of people have been working outside the office for a long time. In addition, we’ve had smartphones firmly in our grasp for well over a decade, so Zooming, Slacking, and Dropboxing are second nature to a whole generation of workers.

As a result, numerous leaders are asking if their companies need workplaces at all. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently told most of his employees they never need to come back to the workplace and Nationwide Insurance announced it’s closing most of its office locations. The CEO of one client challenged his real estate team to prove that his company shouldn’t sell off its entire real estate portfolio. Another exclaimed that COVID-19 is “the 9/11 of workplace,” meaning just as travel and security were transformed in the wake of that tragedy, our workplaces will never be the same. As we enter the reopening phase of the pandemic and some defiantly demand haircuts, shopping trips, and nights out at the bar, there’s no one in the streets protesting to get back to their office.

Yet, after the fearful months following 9/11, when travel was uneasy and demanded “see something, say something” vigilance, things eventually reached a new normal. In time, people didn’t think twice about stepping on a plane to attend a business meeting or a college roommate’s wedding. Similarly, recent provocative headlines about permanent change to our workplaces — Cubicles are back! The open plan is dead! Office buildings are obsolete! — are predictable knee-jerk reactions.

There’s no way to predict what the future workplace will be, but we now know two things. According to the Gensler U.S. Work From Home Survey, most people do want to go back to the office. They also expect the workplace to be different from the one they left behind. No doubt, the office will evolve along with changes in business priorities and cultural norms.

What can we expect early on?

In the initial return to the office, sensible moves like spacing workers apart, enhancing cleaning protocols, and installing touchless fixtures are akin to the precautions one sees at grocery stores and other essential businesses. But, over the next several weeks, a lot will change about our understanding of the virus and its effect on our reentry to the workplace, and so will the mitigation strategies.

Staying on top of the science and letting the dust settle before investing in what might be expensive, short-term, or short-sighted solutions is probably the smartest thing employers can do.

Meanwhile, this time of transition back to the office will force companies to think about realigning their future workplaces with key organizational goals that might have been out of reach before. Doing so can allow companies to emerge from the crisis with stronger, more resilient, and more innovative cultures than they had prior to the pandemic.

What if we could get rid of many of the things most people hate about work and build up the things that inspire and engage us? What if going to the office was something we all looked forward to? Even though we can all cook at home, we go to restaurants because we want the social experience of being together. What if we felt the same about our offices?

A cultural shift

One of the biggest shifts might be a pushback against presentee-ism, which developed because of the difficulty of measuring the productivity of knowledge work. In our return to the office, employees could finally be free to self-determine when and where they gain the most satisfaction from the kinds of work they’re doing. For some functions, that would clearly be in the office. For others, it would be at home or somewhere else. If an organization measured performance based on results and actual value added, how might that improve an employee’s day-to-day experience and engagement?

What if we moved beyond the tyranny of the recurring one-hour meeting, allowing routine matters to be handled virtually or on one’s own time? What if routine decisions didn’t require 10 people sitting around a conference table? What if we could avoid unnecessary consensus-seeking for inconsequential decisions? What if the dreaded weekly staff meeting was a thing of the past, replaced with more immersive, informative, and connected experiences?

What if we could eliminate unplanned interruptions, helped in no small part by poorly designed open-plan offices, instant messaging platforms, and the “ding” of push notifications with smarter tools and more engaging forms of collaboration? What if we could ease the pain of constantly switching between tasks and suffering from the draining cognitive switching penalty, which leaves us exhausted and with little to show for our efforts?

What if traveling to meet people face-to-face was reserved only for truly meaningful interactions (especially when a virtual meeting would suffice)? Expensive business-class travel for 30-minute meetings in far-off countries could be a thing of the past. The carbon footprint, needless expense, and damage to lower backs are reasons enough to never go back to that way of doing business.

What if we could flatten entrenched hierarchies and embrace diversity? Since there’s no corner office on a Zoom meeting and virtual work doesn’t require living in an expensive ZIP code, could we see greater access to talent and wider acceptance of those with different cultural, economic, and family backgrounds?

While workplace design on its own cannot deliver us to this promised land, it can be a catalyst for change when considered as an integral part of an organization’s operating system, delivering a meaningful, engaging, rewarding, valuable, and sustainable employee experience.

A multichannel experience

The Financial Times recently asked if working from home and working from the office are two related, but different, experiences — like digital vs. print newspapers. But what if these two experiences, rather than being two sides of the same coin, could be tightly integrated into a multichannel experience akin to top consumer brands?

Indeed, one of the strongest opportunities for the future of workplaces revolves around community and culture building as we rebound from this period of physical isolation. One of the most significant advances we’ve made is improved connection and awareness of each other through remote technology. Virtual meetings have given us glimpses into each other’s home lives and have built stronger relationships based on empathy and mutual understanding. Somehow, by being apart we’ve come to really know each other more intimately. What if that was the foundation of more meaningful collaboration?

Just imagine if this virtual connection was tethered to immersive digital surfaces in a workplace, for example, so that it created a seamless presence of community in the physical world joined with the digital world. Taken further, one could imagine full integration of virtual reality, digital collaboration tools, advanced conferencing, sensors, and other smart building technologies into our future work lives, whether we are at home or in the office.

Rather than witnessing the death of the workplace, we could very well be watching it enter its golden age.

Randy Howder
As a leader in strategic consulting and workplace design initiatives for a diverse range of industry-leading clients, Randy focuses on transforming organizations through new approaches to design, research, and experience. A principal at the firm, he is Co-Managing Director of our San Francisco office. He can be reached at .
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