Looking ahead – the future of the office

Published by Jake Standing on 18 September 2020

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In the latest of our Looking ahead series of articles, Jake Standing explores the impact COVID-19 may have on the future of the office.

The office has been part of human society for as long as people gathered, lived and worked together. Some 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptian scribes, the office workers of the day, recorded the daily transactions of distributing bread to a workforce. The office has survived revolution, world wars and even Ricky Gervais.

Rumours of the recent COVID-driven demise of the office are very much over-stated, but the office of tomorrow is likely to be a very different environment than we are used to, focused less on a place to work and more a place to learn, meet, socialise and entertain.

The move to agile working began long before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, with businesses tentatively taking steps to introduce greater flexibility in the way its workforce worked. Hot-desking and occasional working from home were increasingly commonplace. It has been said that in central London office occupancy rates were typically around 60% as staff embraced new ways of working.

But on 23 March, that changed when the government introduced a nationwide lockdown. Overnight we became a nation of home workers exploring new and now familiar technologies. Will we ever return to the office in meaningful numbers?

I believe that if a vaccine to COVID-19 can be found quickly, say by the end of the year, then we will very quickly revert back to our pre-March working habits. But that is looking increasingly unlikely, and with it as is the wholesale return to office-based working. With offices now occupied by a small percentage of the workforce, employers will naturally question expensive office footprints. We are already seeing that begin to happen, particularly in central London.

Yet it would be wrong to call the end of the office. People still crave the company of their colleagues, the chance conversations, the creativity and sociability of spending time with like-minded individuals. A more flexible way of working will evolve.

The office will be less of the Victorian ‘nine to five’ factory and more a place where we meet to learn, socialise and entertain clients and customers. It may feel more like a campus or club house, supported by a network of offices and co-working spaces, allowing staff to work away from home should they wish to. Technology will underpin this workplace revolution.

Employers will, however, continue to face new and familiar challenges.

The recruitment of new and junior staff will need to be radically reshaped. It will not be enough for an employer to send a laptop, mobile and welcome box to a new graduate trainee or senior exec telling them to plug in, log on and welcome to the first day at work. Millennials and Gen Z will simply vote with their feet.

Junior staff and those embarking on their career need the training and greater levels of supervision that are so easily delivered when all working under one roof. The training and supervision needed cannot easily be done remotely.

Questions of equality are also likely to be raised with home working unquestionably better suited to those with a larger home and a dedicated workspace – something that can be difficult to achieve in a shared flat or in a home with young children.

Generally speaking, I believe employers still want employees in the office and employees don’t want to work permanently from home. It is unlikely that employers will demand everyone returns to the office. The future of the office is likely to be a blend of the two, with staff perhaps working two days a week or one week in four in the office with the remaining time spent working at home. Employees will be given the flexibility to choose, and that cannot be a bad thing.

We are hosting a series of practical webinars helping businesses to look ahead and plan for a post-COVID-19 future. 

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