Before 2020, I had never spent a day of my life working from home. So, when I was told in March that I could not commute and had to spend more time away from my desk, I may have gotten a bit carried away. A future with no office seemed possible, and perhaps even inevitable.
Maybe you’re not so convinced. Zoom is functional, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. And now the novelty has worn off, questions about the nature of office jobs and the future of cities seem ever harder to answer. Depending on what you do or where you live, the office can seem like anything from a burden to a refuge.
But do you really need to worry about the future of the office?
Factors beyond the pandemic
A survey published by Harvard Business School in August 2020 estimated that a sixth of employees will work from home two days a week on average, after the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s significant, but not earth-shattering. Considering that working from home had risen steadily over the last decade by 3-4% a year, it seems that here, as elsewhere, COVID has accelerated an existing trend rather than invented a new one.
While it’s clear many would like to work from home more than they did pre-pandemic, it also looks like a hybrid approach appeals as well. In a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, 73% of workers wanted to continue working from home in some form, but 82% miss informal contact with their colleagues.
So far, when given the opportunity to return, results have been mixed. A survey conducted in August found that a third of British white-collar workers returned to their offices after the first lockdown, while the average across Europe was much higher at 68%.
Those figures may seem small, but it’s reasonable to assume that many who didn’t return were either put off by COVID risks or were still enjoying the novelty. Translated into a post-pandemic future, they bode well for a staggered migration back to offices.
Beyond the pandemic, employment growth will remain a key driver of office demand. Europe’s property cycle, which is yet to fully bounce back after the global financial crisis and Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, means that rents here are more affordable than other major cities across the globe.
In addition, any increase in working from home is unlikely to offset the rise of office-based employment growth once economies begin to recover from the pandemic. The more pertinent question then will not be how many office workers are working from home, but how many office workers are working.
Evolving, not dead
Fidelity’s chief executive, Anne Richards, recently spoke to the Financial Times about the future of the office. From a personal perspective, I was relieved by what she had to say. She wondered whether the office would serve as “a drop-in centre for those that find working from home challenging? Or a connectivity hub for cross functional creativity? Or a place to reaffirm friendship and social contact? The answer is probably ‘all of the above’ for many.” Still an office, but reimagined.
In July, Google confirmed that it would be going ahead with its new London headquarters, despite announcing that same month that its workforce could continue to work from home until at least Summer 2021.
And it doesn’t look like Google plans on scaling down. The office will house an indoor basketball court, a swimming pool and a rooftop running track. At 330 metres long, it will be larger than the Shard.
Is Google’s “landscaper” office a glimpse of the future? Its 330 metres are unlikely to be filled with lines of workstations, but will instead offer welcoming collaborative spaces, plenty of meeting rooms and large areas for private focus. Workers may not come here every day to type at their desktops, but they’ll probably pop in selectively for communication and development.
Fears over the demise of the office have been justified, but their longer-term relevance looks overstated. Rather than decaying, offices should evolve.
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