After several months of remote work from the office, many organisations and their employees have completely adjusted to business as unusual and found ways to maintain productivity from home.
Once this is all over, will employees welcome the return of the physical office? Or will they resist the transition back to what was once considered the norm?
A challenging, but necessary, move
Since the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, organisations and firms across the globe have needed to evacuate their magnificent office buildings located near and inside large city centres, and transition to work from each one’s own humble home.
This has been done to align with government health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as to protect the workers themselves and society at large.
Although it was a sudden and difficult change to adopt when the world still did not really understand what COVID-19 was and how it would turn our lives upside down, most of us have now become accustomed to our new, socially-isolated routines.
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As a result, some have begun to pose questions as to whether physical office spaces, a place that was traditionally considered as being quintessential to work productivity and corporate culture, will still be relevant once the pandemic subsides.
Business as unusual – that is, working away from office headquarters – may eventually transform into “business as usual”. If we continue to perform tasks efficiently and effectively despite being geographically dispersed, who is to say that remote work will not become the ‘new normal’ in the near future?
The surprising benefits of an undefined office
When we hear the word ‘office’, what kind of images come to mind? Undoubtedly, many of us might picture tall industrial buildings, neatly organised cubicles and desks, or even the coffee-break area that is ubiquitous to most firms where employees socialise and take breathers.
In the white-collar community, there are likely few who thought ‘the office’ synonymous with their personal space. However, this may not be the case anymore after these past months.
In fact, according to McKinsey findings, four- fifths of people surveyed about their compromised working conditions stated that they prefer the home office to the traditional one. Furthermore, a large majority even declared that they were equally or more productive than they used to be, before the transition to the virtual workplace.
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There are many reasons to explain this increasingly popular view on the home office. Firstly, as it is now, people can simply wake up and find themselves already at work. The need to commute to and from the office is eliminated, meaning that employees can save on the time and monetary costs of transport.
Secondly, the present arrangements enable more flexible work hours than ever before. Not everyone is the most productive from the conventional 9-5. Some find that their brains are more active at night, and thus are more suited to create better results when people are generally preparing for bed.
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Thirdly, since nobody is looking over your shoulder and you are in the comfort of your own home, it is much easier to take breaks when you need them. This helps mitigate the ‘afternoon slump’ that many workers feel from around 1- 4 pm, therefore potentially bolstering overall productivity.
Aside from these employee benefits, management may also see some advantages with remote work being normalised. For example, since nobody really knows when the pandemic will end and seeing that geographical boundaries for organisations are collapsing, allows HR to experiment with their recruitment procedures to include international applicants. Therefore, offering a greater opportunity to find the ideal candidate for a specific job.
With all these upsides to virtual work, will the physical office become redundant and eventually disappear?
The challenges of working remotely
All these benefits have been made possible thanks to the ever-advancing technologies of the current society. If COVID-19 had hit the globe a decade ago, who knows how we would have managed remote work without today’s IT capabilities, such as Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams.
However, though it has improved drastically to drive efficient and flexible work, technology is not perfect. And it, unfortunately, is not the answer to everything.
While working remotely presents much in terms of freedom as mentioned above, all good things come with their corresponding costs.
It has been well researched that extended periods of social isolation can take a toll on one’s mental health. Additionally, time away from work colleagues and the office environment can potentially weaken company culture, as employees can no longer interact with each other organically and cultivate social norms.
Other obstacles that employees can face, especially those living with family, are distractions by way of household members; or the inability to properly segregate one’s private and work life, potentially leading to chronic stress.
Moreover, meetings are, without a doubt, more difficult to run in the virtual workplace. In addition to technology not working as intended some days, it takes much more effort to convey presence and facilitate smooth conversation through digital communication platforms.
Although we can see each other’s faces through video call, the contextual cues such as conversational atmosphere and general body language are delayed or lost through the screen. This makes it hard to gauge participant engagement and comprehension. As such, it requires increased, conscious observation and interpersonal skills to generate the same conversational richness as face-to-face meetings.
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So, what can we expect for the future of the office?
Simon Sinek, thought leader on organisational leadership and management, does not believe that COVID-19 marks “the end of the office.” His arguments for why he feels this is although we might be “functional” as it stands, humans are ultimately tribal animals that perform better for creative and collaborative projects in a social environment.
However, he does foresee that as a result of this mass assimilation to remote work, organisations will allow employees to enjoy greater autonomy and leniency towards how often they come into the office, given they have shown equal levels of productivity at home.
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And if such a relaxed policy becomes popularised, we can expect office occupancy to change day by day, and average employee density only a portion of what it used to be. Considering the time it could take before people feel safe enough to commute regularly again, this model fits well with coronavirus health and safety measures.
COVID-19 prevention regulations will definitely impact physical office layouts and design as well. That is, desks and individual workspaces will invariably be reorganised so that workers are more spaced out, and social distancing guidelines and sanitisation areas also adopted.
WeWork, a leading real- estate company for commercial enterprises, has even suggested that companies think about a “hub-and-spoke” model for their office venues. This involves setting up smaller local offices where a significant number of employees live, as an alternative meeting place to the official headquarters, where there is a higher risk associated with the commute.
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The changing spatial and geographical demands concerning physical offices during and post COVID-19 has implications on commercial tenant-broker agreements. The typical lease commitment length will likely be shorter across the market. The pandemic has made the market more sensitive to the versatility of on-site daily operations and the importance of contingent response mechanisms.
We cannot predict how the future will turn out, but we can keep an open mind and be agile to react to changes in the environment. As such, in the world of work post COVID-19, it is expected that offices will serve a facilitating purpose, rather than the essential role they conventionally played in the past.
A world post COVID-19 will not operate "as usual." Businesses need to be prepared for every eventuality in order to be sustainable. Subscribe to TRG's Business As UnUsual #BAUU newsletter now and stay up-to-date on the latest insights and practices to navigate today's changing environment.