Yoav Tchelet
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Will COVID-19 Mean the End of The Office?

Will COVID-19 Mean the End of The Office?

Besides the scare it has brought about, one of the other things precipitated by the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is a change in how we work.

Thanks to social distancing measures adopted by many governments across the world, office spaces around the world are now sparsely populated, if not downright abandoned.

Additionally, many enterprises and businesses are altogether choosing to terminate their office space leases in favour of giving their workforce the ability to work from home as a way to curtail the spread of the virus.

The work-environment changes brought on by COVID-19 have left many wondering and asking:

Will COVID-19 Be the Factor That Brings About the End Of “The Office?”

According to experts, the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change the future of work, especially office-based work.

That notwithstanding, many experts opine that no matter how much the Coronavirus pandemic changes the business and work environment, because of various factors, the office as we know it is not going anywhere. Yes, how the office operates post the COVID-19 pandemic will change, but ultimately, the office is here to stay.

One such expert is Tracy Brower, a sociologist, and Forbes contributor. On an opinion published on Forbes Careers, she notes that even though, based on Gallup’s data, 63% of the American workforce is working from home because of COVID-19,[1]companies would be mistaken to assume this renders the office irrelevant.

She states:

“It’s tempting for companies to conclude the office is irrelevant. Perhaps commutes, conference rooms, and coffee bars aren’t really that necessary after all. With billions invested in real estate and maintenance of the workplace, companies would be missing something if they weren’t at least asking questions about its necessity. But not so fast. The office simply cannot go away. It is necessary on multiple levels—for our effectiveness, for our sanity, and our humanity.” [2]

Tracy is not the only one who believes that even though COVID-19 will change the environment in irreversible ways, it will not bring about its end.

Richard Proctor, a partner at Knight Frank, London, and the head of London Tenant Representation believes that even though the COVID-19 pandemic will change the office, it will not kill it altogether.

On an opinion piece published on The Telegraph, he notes:

“Coronavirus will change, not kill, the humble office…. Offices will become more innovative, but they won’t go (away) forever…. Our Pre-COVID-19 poll of 100 big companies showed that 25pc expected their property portfolios to be “radically different” in three years, but no one expected the end of the office as we know it overall.”[3]

From these expert opinions, we can conclude that:

No! COVID-19 will not bring about the end of the office as we know it. What it shall do, however, is change it!

Which brings us to this:

Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Shall Not “Kill” The Office

In her opinion piece, Tracy Brower makes a strong case for why the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will not bring about the end of the office as we know it. Some of the reasons she notes are:

#: Our social nature

The fact that, inherently, we are a social species, is one of the reasons why social distancing measures and other COVID-19 occasioned changes have been so challenging to maintain and enforce. It’s also one of the primary reasons why even though it will change future working spaces, it will not end them.

In her opinion piece, Tracy makes her case for why COVId-19 will not kill the office because of our desire for face-to-face interaction by citing a study commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The study determined that:

“…as much as 71% of people are struggling to adjust to remote work….” “…according to additional research, people working from home are reporting mental health challenges….” [4]

#: The office fuels innovation

Most modern workplaces are collaborative environments where workers have to work together to innovate new ways to serve their core audiences.

While making her case for why COVID-19 will not kill the office, Tracy notes that even though we can be creative and innovative from anywhere, being together, as is the case with the office space, fuels innovative thinking.

She notes:

“…Perhaps those who do individual work can be successful working exclusively from home, but teams work better when they can come together in an office to blend their best thinking. Beyond co-creation that happens within teams, organizations require collaboration between and across teams—and nothing offers the same value as an office in achieving this goal…”

#: Shared purpose

COVID-19 or not, “the office” is not going away anytime soon because, as Tracy Brower notes, the office gives employees a sense of shared purpose.

According to Tracy, when workers feel that they’re working towards a common goal, something that’s not as pronounced now that a majority of workers are working from home, they feel more motivated and committed to the mission.

While making her case on why COVID-19 shall not mean the end of the office because of the shared purpose element it (the office) brings about, the cites the result of the SHRM study mentioned earlier that states:

“…The SHRM study demonstrates (that) 65% of companies report they are struggling to maintain (employee) morale…”[5]

Other reasons cited by Tracy for why COVID-19 shall not cause the death of the office are:

  • The office improves our wellbeing by providing more chances for movement, the mental stimulation that comes from interacting with our co-workers and environment as we make out way to and from work, and by improving our interpersonal relations.
  • It connects us to the workplace culture.
  • It increases our work engagement, thereby keeping our brain active and engaged.
  • The physical presence that’s part of what it means to work in an office environment improves facets of our emotional intelligence, such as empathy.

If what COVID-19 shall do is change the office, not end it, what should we expect the office to look like in a post-COVID-19 future? 

In a Post-COVID-19 World, The Office Will Look Different

None of us can dispute that some of the best minds the planet has to offer are working on a cure for COVID-19. This concerted effort has only one likely outcome: a vaccine or a cure for the virus! How long it takes before we can have a viable cure or vaccine is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps because of its economic impact, and the fact that many experts now believe that the virus will be endemic,[6] many countries have started easing COVID-19 instigated restrictions.

Some of the restrictions eased are those related to business operations. Many countries have now opted to reopen businesses affected by the Coronavirus, albeit with strict safeguard measures meant to reduce the spread of the virus and save human lives.

As office and working spaces reopen, here’re some of the changes we should expect to see and how future office spaces shall look, thanks to the COVID-19 instigated changes:

#: Open office plans may be a thing of the past

Courtesy: MUGENUP, Wikimedia

In 2019, Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., and a professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona published a study that illustrated how viruses spread in office spaces.

On a Science News-Post published on Science Focus, Amy Barrett, an Editorial Assistant for BBC Science Focus, quotes Reynolds who states:

“If just one person comes to work sick, they can contaminate over 50 percent of the office surfaces, and their co-workers’ [spaces], in less than four hours…” “… The typical route of transmission is from an infected person’s hands to surfaces that are touched by multiple people.” [7]

Now that governments are easing COVID-19 restrictions, many office workers, especially those that work in offices that adopt an open plan, are expressing a great deal of concern over their safety and wellbeing.

While speaking to Sarah Gibbens, a writer for National Geographic, Ayla Larick, a Texas-based insurance broker, noted:

“Before [the coronavirus outbreak], I requested to move to a corner desk to kind of get away from the co-workers who were more social and talkative,” “…I am a little nervous about returning, only because I’m less than six feet away from three other people the entire time I’m working on my computer…” [8]

In a post-COVID-19 work environment, one of the most significant changes you should expect to see is a rapid shifting away from open office plans.

Some experts, such as Amol Sarva, CEO of Knotel, an interior design company that has designed flexible workspaces for companies such as Netflix, Uber, and Teachable, believe that COVID-19 will be the stroke that kills the open office plan. He notes:

“The broad stroke is that the open office is over, [but] there’s a bunch of different things that that means…” [9]

The case made for open floor plans is that they decrease operational cost, especially because in the modern open-plan office space, the idea is to cram as many workers as possible in the available floor space, and a democratized workplace.

While open office layouts do have their benefits, in an investigative study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, South Korea, researchers noted that in crowded office spaces, a hallmark trait of open-plan offices, the virus spreads faster.

Courtesy: CDC, South Korea

Based on this, experts like Donald Milton, a Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, believe that in a post-COVID-19 office environment, we should see a rollback to cubicles and other barriers that can help lower the virus’s transmissibility.

“Workstations were about privacy and acoustics – now they represent a physical separation between colleagues.”

Brent Capron

#: A hybrid approach to work

Albert De Plazaola, UniSpace’s director of strategy, notes that rethinking workplace design and desk arrangements, having sanitizer and handwashing stations, and periodically disinfecting work surfaces is just the first phase of the office changes we should expect post-COVID-19.

Beyond that, we should expect more drastic changes such as staggered arrivals and work routines, directed foot traffic, staging areas, and reduced sitting areas, among many others.

Since there is no clarity of when we should expect a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, the possible likelihood is that as we move into the future and learn to live with this virus, businesses will adopt a hybrid approach.

Such an approach will probably involve having employees work from home and the office in turn.

For example, to enforce social distancing measures without necessarily having to rework their open-plan office spaces, many enterprises will choose to have some employees come in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and work from home on the other days.

On the possibility of most businesses adopting a hybrid approach, especially one that involves having a staggered workforce where employees come into the office on alternate days as needed, Albert De Plazaola notes:

“…Organizations are working out who most needs to be at the office, and capping staff numbers off at about 30%, which is probably the sweet spot for social distancing.” [10]

In the future, a hybrid approach to work will be the most logical choice for most businesses. For instance, according to Amol Sarva, in the “new normal,” Uber plans to adopt a hybrid system where at any given workday, only 20% of their workforce shall be within their headquarters; the remaining 80% shall be working from home.

In a post-COVID-19 future, businesses will become more and more reliant on technology, and the traditional workday will change drastically, the most drastic change of which shall be the state of “reporting to the office” for a 9-5 grind.

In the future, besides a staggered work routine where employees report to work on rotation, you can also expect employees to report to work when necessary instead of every day. That also means employees will have more control of their workflow in the sense that they’ll be able to choose whether going to the office is necessary or if a teleconference with a colleague would be the better choice.

Conclusion

Even though COVID-19 will not bring about the demise of the office as we know it, companies will increasingly continue looking into how they can give their employees work from home opportunities and the flexibility of deciding when they come into the office.


[1] Gallup Poll: https://bit.ly/2C9LWRi

[2] Forbes Careers, Tracy Brower Opinion: https://bit.ly/2ZHrOhD

[3] The Telegraph Business, Richard Proctor, Opinion: https://bit.ly/3gzDeea

[4] SHRM Survey on How CVID-19 is shaping workspaces: https://bit.ly/3gtsI82

[5] SHRM Survey on How CVID-19 is shaping workspaces: https://bit.ly/3gtsI82

[6] Washington Post, Coronavirus may be endemic: https://wapo.st/3f7W3oq

[7] BBC Science Focus, Kelly Reynolds: https://bit.ly/2BKTtWT

[8] Sarah, Gibbens, National Grographic: https://on.natgeo.com/2Z51uyC

[9] Sarah, Gibbens, National Grographic: https://on.natgeo.com/2Z51uyC

[10] Albert De Plazaola for BBC: https://bbc.in/2Z42frW