The last time I went to a meeting in central London – at the time of writing, the last time I went anywhere – was at the end of February 2020. There were some people wearing masks at the airport, and we were all getting increasingly concerned about that nasty virus affecting Asia, but in itself London hadn’t changed. Between the tube station and the office I was headed to in the city rush hour I remember swerving repeatedly off the pavement between barriers and construction hoardings, as the creation of yet more chrome and glass office real estate fought its way towards the grey skies of EC1, and countless commuters hurried about their daily business as they had done for unchanging decades.
That all seems like very long ago now, and I wonder about all those building sites and those who were destined to work in them. Same as I wonder about the servers in that coffee shop I stopped in, and the Uber drivers, and everyone else who was part of that city ecosystem, where the pause button was to be abruptly pressed a few weeks later.
As in London, so around the world, most of those gleaming tower blocks still remain in mothballs, awaiting an uncertain future.
Everyone’s talking about a hybrid future, where we work some of the time from home, and some at the office. Or does it mean some of us work in the office full time, and others always at home? Perhaps it’s more flexible, and depends on what people are doing – but how is that going to work, when we’re trying to limit space sharing and cramming into crowded rooms and public transport?
More to the point, who gets to decide?
What is the future of the workplace?
Politicians threaten that people will lose their jobs if they don’t go back to the office, but they’re not the CEOs. They’re not the HR directors, who should be talking to people about what they actually want right now. What technology (for example, in scheduling tools and resources) will help people feel safe? What kind of planning protocols will let work get done in meaningful ways, without constraining choice? What about the people who have already moved further away from the central business district, in order to create more space for home-based working (or who might have a longer-term vision of going further afield and taking advantage of the various remote work visa schemes springing up all over the world?)
Certainly the days of the office being a place people go simply to sit next to other people to work on their own have got to be over for good. If you need the buzz of other people around you to get stuff done, then there will be better local solutions – like co-working spaces, or re-purposed hospitality offerings, which don’t involve a lengthy commute to a city centre (and might really reinvigorate local high streets and communities as they evolve to meet a new need).
Instead, offices will probably evolve into more flexible and needs-focused use, a place we go to do specific things with particular people, when we need to. We’ll have to repurpose the space to make it both safe and flexible – for example, reconfiguring the audio pickup in a small conference room, to make it work as a socially-distanced huddle room for 3 (and huddling sounds way too touchy-feely for the new normality, come to think of it). More and more interactions will be controlled via people’s own devices, instead of interacting physically with shared screens and peripherals. But the tech exists, from occupation sensors to scheduling tools to biometric touch-free access points, to make it work – so long as employers decide and plan and invest to support this change.
Functional collaboration, deliberate connection…
So if we accept for the sake of the ‘going back’ argument that certain types of collaboration are best done face to face (I’ll discuss the nuances of that some other time), then that should be driven by the work activity itself. But what if everyone wants to do their face-to-face onsite brainstorming on Wednesday morning? What if we extend office opening hours from 8am to 8pm to avoid overcrowding, but no-one actually comes in before midday anyway, and the whole of the London office prefers the later shift to support real-time conversations with the US contingent? What if we say people can work when and where they want, and no one wants to use the office at all?
There’s going to have to be a huge shift towards transparency, consultation, and open scheduling, to avoid unsafe occupation levels, or paying for unnecessary space.
What we can expect, I am sure, is a diversity of approach. Just as, throughout the pandemic, enterprises watched each other and responded as one place after another announced long term WFH options, it feels like there’s a global holding of the breath, a reluctance to be the first to define a hybrid working strategy and open it up for criticism.
Not surprising, when you realise that those companies which adopt a truly remote first mindset and culture will be able to hire anyone from anywhere… and that means taking their pick, of frustrated, stressed, burned-out and undervalued high performers who might be working for a competitor in the meantime.
And they’ll have to cultivate a bias toward transparency, asynchronous communication, and being intentional – to shape a real sense of shared purpose and joint enterprise, across a team united by what they’re doing rather than where they are. For most that will mean changing the way things are or were done, making new things explicit, and experimenting honestly and openly to see what works and what people really want.
What do YOU want, for your own future of work?
This means thinking long term, and really consulting everyone affected, on an ongoing basis. It doesn’t mean doing a quick survey of lonely disconnected people about what they think they want or miss most right now, and basing long-term real estate planning on the results, which surely no responsible enterprise would do?
It’d be like asking people if they want to live with their in-laws or something – extended family who they probably desperately miss right now and cannot wait to have dinner with, but whose company they may be hard-pressed to survive through a fortnight’s holiday, in normal times. Right now we might see office politics, gossip, and socialising through some very rose-tinted nostalgic lenses, and that’s be a bad position from which to make expensive strategic choices.
HR are also going to have to consider new complications about the appropriateness and legality of discussing vaccination or antibody status – confidential personal medical information surely? And for plenty of employers, the whole practice and culture around coming into work anyway when you’re sick, is REALLY going to have to change.
I don’t have all the answers by any means, but I do know that offices, and what they have always looked like and felt like, are going to be very different. It’s too early to say exactly how they’re going to differ, but it’s not too early to be thinking about what you want, and how you’re going to feel, when your employer starts making decisions.
We’ve created a special report, which you can grab right here, to help you work through your own thoughts and feelings about this huge change which awaits work as we know it, and start thinking about what it is you want for yourself – your career, your lifestyle, your household, and even your home.
Let me know how you’re thinking, what you’re being told, and what you decide.