Why the Office Isn’t Dead: The New State of the Post-COVID Workplace
As pandemic lockdown restrictions ease, many workers have the option to return to the office. But after a year of remote work, many question the need.
On March 11, 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the way business is conducted changed forever. A new era of mask-wearing, social distancing, and working from home quickly became the norm. Offices went dark and downtown urban settings began to resemble scenes from post-apocalyptic films rather than the once-vibrant city centers bustling with weekday activity. In the United States, many businesses learned to adapt to these challenges and found that worker productivity could be maintained, or even improved while embracing a remote work environment model.
Today, as vaccinations increase and restrictions ease, many workers question the need to “go back” to business as usual. They argue the huddle space, the cubicle desk, the conference room, and even the boardroom are all dead. The need for traditional office spaces is in question in a post-COVID environment largely due to concerns for space density and occupant capacity while still maintaining social distancing norms.
Does this mean the death knell for cohabitated office environments has begun to sound? I do not think so. Will they be transformed, reconfigured, and otherwise reimagined? Almost certainly. But is the office dead? No. Here is why:
People need people
After nearly a year and a half of lockdown, not really interacting with anyone other than my immediate family, I was fortunate enough to gather up a group of 12 fully vaccinated friends at my home and the results were quite intriguing. The months of video chat and text messaging where we could not "read the room" or pick up on true intention in voice and expression chipped away as the in-person conversation took place. We all realized what we intuitively understood, face-to-face interactions simply cannot be fully replaced with technology.
Technology cannot fully replicate a thousand-year-old paradigm for face-to-face meetings. There is a reason why gathering in close proximity has always worked. If you think about how humans tend to huddle together for the “campfire discussion,” there is a synergy that happens when we gather to exchange ideas that flow more freely and naturally when the constraint of long-distance communication is removed. While business for many was able to continue remotely, I concur with others who feel something was lost.
"(A)s the crisis dragged, we realized that it wasn’t sufficient to measure productivity by the simple yardstick of hours worked. We were missing the ‘heartbeat’ of the workplace: the energy that comes from serendipitous encounters that aren’t boxed into Zoom screens; the creativity that comes from spontaneous collaboration; the trust and relationships that are built through countless and unsaid small gestures and interactions.”
Vaibhav Gujral, Partner
McKinsey & Company
Hidden risks of remote-only work
While many employees readily adjusted to the work-from-home environment, others struggled. Business leaders and managers are advised to be aware of some of the less obvious risks of abandoning on-site workplaces entirely.
Increased Loneliness: While many companies were pleasantly surprised by the ability of their workforce to maintain or even improve productivity during COVID, they should be cautious in assigning any correlation between remote work and better efficiency. In fact, a pre-pandemic study conducted by the Academy of Management says there is a measurable link between workplace loneliness and job performance. Even if there are kids running around and a supportive spouse, some employees may feel professionally lonely. This can lead to less collaboration, decreased work satisfaction, and lower productivity.
Decreased Work-Life Balance: Cutting the daily commute has added hours to many worker’s days. That means more time with family, friends, or even pets, right? While it would seem working from home offers this quality time benefit, for some the experience is the opposite. Without a clear demarcation between at work and at home, it may be difficult to separate the two. For some, working from home slips into a feeling of always being “on the clock.” Working in a centralized office can buffer employees from the day-to-day distractions of home life offering a specific schedule and environment for concentration with like-minded and motivated coworkers.
Lack of Mentoring Opportunities: There is simply no substitute for a physical office in its natural suitability to train, mentor, and professionally develop junior staff members. Interactions with more experienced team members are more natural and flowing. While a new employee may be hesitant to set up a Zoom call to ask a basic question, the communication could be much easier in-person in a breakroom or passing in the hall.
Company Culture Could Suffer: Sharing a centralized workspace can foster, promote, and perpetuate company culture. Working remotely restricts opportunities to overtly display how a company supports and celebrates its people. Everything from birthday celebrations, team lunches, or “Fruity Fridays” can all have an impact on worker satisfaction, recruitment, and retention.
The case for the post-COVID workplace
The 2020 global pandemic has taught many lessons including the importance of technology and the ability to adjust and adapt to challenging conditions. Many workers and businesses came to realize there is more than one set path to conducting day-to-day operations. Working remotely is now accepted as a viable option that may not have been considered before COVID-19.
While the new normal will likely include various degrees of hybrid work approaches, there will always be a need for office spaces for all of the reasons and concerns previously noted. Yet there is no going back to how things were before lockdown. It is the responsibility of the design and building industry to adapt to this new reality.
Current office environments will need to be retrofitted to address tenant concerns. Technology will be implemented to make buildings safer and healthier. Building owners and operators will seek to attract and retain businesses by pursuing certifications such as LEED, WELL, and the WELL Health-Safety Rating to demonstrate healthy and environmentally friendly structures.
Designers of new buildings will be rethinking how space is used. Technology and the built environment are the vehicles for us to enhance our humanness, our need to work together and communicate on a base level. It should be the lens by which we expand our capacity to learn, not a crutch. While we have been fortunate to have collaborative tools in place to get us through this lockdown, the past year and a half has also taught us that human interaction is a necessity.
This deep-rooted thirst for more intuitive designs accounts for our habits, who we are, what our daily plans are, and how to adjust the indoor environment to accommodate these factors are in the spotlight. The workplace of the new normal will have to adjust to these demands. People skills are going to become even more important to the hybrid workforce. Workers that are able to pick up on visual and verbal cues intuitively have an advantage. Meeting face-to-face will augment and accelerate innovation and the business decision-making process.
Designing the office meeting space now means accounting for frequent sanitization, a touchless experience, good air quality, flexible furniture, reconfigurable rooms, real-time occupancy data with intuitive actionable intelligence, and a more immersive experience from a technology standpoint.
The impact of COVID-19 on office real estate will likely persist for the foreseeable future, but the physical office will survive. The form may be different, but the benefits cannot be denied. The office isn’t dead—it is evolving.
As a Senior Audio Visual Consultant, John Doyle is professionally invested in pursuing ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.
For more information on how to adapt technology to the post-COVID workplace, reach out to John.