Almost overnight, COVID-19 has made the traditional office environment obsolete. With social distancing now a legal necessity in many workplaces and intense hygiene standards required for any workspace that’s still open, the office as we know it is no more.
But while COVID-19 appears to be the nail in the coffin for the classic office setup, the end has been nigh for some time. For over a decade, remote work has been on the rise, and the need for office space and desks has been shrinking. It’s been a slow process, but COVID-19 appears to have given us the push we finally needed to escape an era of over-reliance on office space.
60% of workers are expected to stay working from home after the pandemic is over. Considering that less than 30% of people worked from home in 2019, this number is a massive increase. Working from home is set to go from the minority to the majority in less than a year.
But how have we come to this point, and why has it taken a global pandemic to see the benefits of moving away from the traditional office environment? The symptoms of resistance to change are very similar to those of the five stages of grief, but what exactly does this journey look like?
Stage One: Denial
Office work has been the normality for many businesses since the 18th century. Popularised by the bureaucracy of the British Empire, offices became a staple part of many industries — including financial and legal — until they eventually branched out to encompass almost everything that required some kind of administrative work.
And so comes the argument: “Since it’s worked for some 300 years, why to change now?”
Those that support offices over remote work look to the tried-and-tested nature of the office. Why seek to usurp such a robust cornerstone of industry? The truth is that office work is acceptable and has served our economy well for many hundreds of years, but remote work has also demonstrated its worth and has proven to improve vital statistics like productivity and employee retention over office work.
Denial of the benefits of remote work and maintenance of the inferior status quo is one of the primary reasons flexible opportunities remained such a rarity until very recently.
Stage Two: Anger
Speaking on Inc.Live, CEO of OpenSky, John Caplan, makes a poignant statement that applies to many business owners and entrepreneurs. They are their own bosses, proud of what they do, and always hunting for a challenge.
When they’re told that what they’re doing is wrong, that their vast empire of office spaces is not the most optimum method of operation, for many, the reaction is to find a way to prove the nay-sayers wrong. To show the power and significance of office life, to rise to the occasion, and to demonstrate that their way is the right way.
It’s an admirable quality and one that has got so many ahead in business, but not all battles are worth fighting — and not all battles can be won. 60% of employers that have switched to remote working have identified clear cost savings as a primary benefit of the practice.
Stage Three: Bargaining
It’s been obvious for a long time that remote work has some superior benefits to working out of the office, but those that were passionate about the idea refused to let go. In this stage, proponents of the office lifestyle have called upon the benefits of their own practices to bargain for the continued worth of office space.
They’ve talked about the value of face-to-face meetings, which is undoubtedly a pro of office working. They’ve also spoken of the benefits to office culture, the ability to connect with others, and collaborate on a meaningful level.
In truth, this was a fair argument for a while.
But, in the modern era of high-speed cloud software and video calls, collaboration and connectivity in the workplace are just as easy from home as it is in the office. Software tools enable colleagues to work on projects together, management systems allow for easy monitoring of your workforce, and setups like Zoom or Google Hangouts mean conversations are only a click away.
Stage Four: Depression
As Belgium workplace-optimisation company EY explains, moving to remote work takes a comprehensive strategy, time investment, and opportunity management to ensure that the move is a total success.
For many businesses, this concept proved to be a managerial headache and an HR nightmare. From setting up systems to deciding who was going to be the best candidate for remote work availability, even if companies were willing to try a new system, the implementation of such a working method was often seen as just too much of a hassle to deploy.
Stage Five: Acceptance
COVID-19 has been our stage of acceptance. No longer able to use trepidation as an excuse not to roll out changes and introduce remote working, we’ve finally been forced to engage long-distance, and the results have been revolutionary.
74% of businesses intend to shift at least some of their workforce over to remote and flexible roles following COVID-19. Now able to not only hear about the benefits of remote work but also witness them first-hand, millions of businesses across the world have come to learn that the office might not be the best place for their workforce.
So is this our final farewell to the office?
This Doesn’t Have to Be Goodbye
IBM is a business that still retains office space, however, its introduction of agile working has meant that its cut office real estate costs by $50 million. This business is a perfect example of the truth of office vs remote working: there is space enough for both.
Office work has its benefits, particularly for face-to-face engagement. Remote work has its luxuries, including driving up employee happiness, increasing productivity, and — as IBM demonstrates — major cost savings.
We’ve gone through the motions trying to eliminate office working or convincing ourselves that remote working is not what it’s promised to be, but the fact is that both have their advantages, and both can be incorporated into the modern working schedule to create an atmosphere that fosters the best of both worlds.
The statistic of 74% of businesses looking to change their working environment is worth paying close attention to. It shows us that not all businesses see the full benefit of remote work and that, even amongst those that do, the intention is not to completely eradicate office-based work in favour of full-time remote work but to strike a balance between the two.
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too: How to Have the Best of Office & Remote Work
Flexible work that allows for remote working while still including office work when beneficial is what all businesses want to be striving for, but there is a problem with this model:
Office real estate.
Imagine you maintain all your desk space, yet your workforce is only coming in two days a week. That’s a lot of real estate costs wasted, which reduces the cost-effective nature of remote work for your business. But then you have the problem of removing space. If you get rid of space, then where do your employees go when they have to come into the office? They need that desk space to make coming into the office valuable and enjoy the benefits that come with it. The answer is simple:
Agile workspace, desk booking systems, co-working areas — they all have slightly different names, but they offer the same core solution that empowers your goal of balancing remote and office work. Instead of having desks and office space assigned to individuals, you have free-flowing spaces that can be booked and used by anyone.
If you reduced onsite attendance to 30% of normal capacity, you’d only need 30% of the desk space you used to have. Through desk booking, you can dramatically lower your required real estate without reducing your employee’s ability to work onsite. Keep productivity up while people attend the office, but stop your business paying out for more working areas than you need under your new flexible-working dynamic.
Interesting Related Article: “Which is More Ideal, Working From Home or The Office?“