Future Office - Is the office as we know it dead post-COVID? - Part One

4 May 2021


Those predicting the demise of the office in the wake of COVID have got it wrong. Make no mistake, the office will survive, but it will work differently. In Castlerock’s opinion, the 2020 work-from-home experience that was forced on companies will lead to a re-engineering of how employees work —and what role offices play—in myriad ways.

Let’s be upfront about working from home. There are benefits. Eliminating commute times and working without disruption can make employees more productive. Putting the demands of home education to one side, employees have more flexibility to balance personal and professional lives. A 2020 US survey by the global management consulting firm McKinsey found 80% of employees liked working from home, 41% believed they were more productive and 28% just as productive.

There are also negatives for employees, especially an increase in mental health problems. Although some employees thrived, others didn’t. Some felt disconnected from their co-workers, socially and professionally, worried about how their performance was being assessed, had difficulties in remaining motivated, and, most importantly, knowing how to switch off. Working from home was not all beer and skittles.

Companies, too, reaped some benefits from employees working from home. Removing an employee’s distance from work as an impediment to employment opens up new talent pools. Having to recognise the legitimacy of work from home forced companies to institutionalise previous ad hoc arrangements, while reducing rental costs directly benefits the bottom line.

But the office has been with us for a long time. Ancient Rome had places for official work, although it wasn’t until the 18th century that dedicated office buildings emerged. Today, many white-collar workers (state and private sectors) only know an office environment. That builds cultures, relationships, and work patterns unlikely to be dislodged by working from home for less than a year.

Remember, too, working from home is not a new phenomenon, although it’s certainly more formalised. ABS statistics show about one-third of Australians regularly worked from home pre-COVID, although the pandemic did change a lifestyle choice to a practical necessity. That number also reflects increasing self-employment in a digital world.

But that statistic, even when coupled with the COVID-induced changes, does not change the pivotal role offices play in our working lives. The traditional thinking that offices enhance productivity, nurture sound workplace cultures, and help secure and retain talented employees remains valid. Under this broad umbrella, it allows employee to collaborate, be mentored and socially interact – all essential ingredients to a successful – and profitable – business.   

The simple fact is those “water-cooler” conversations, formal meetings and social engagements are important. They build social capital, a better understanding of employees’ (and management’s) strengths and weaknesses and elicit team responses to corporate challenges in ways simply not possible over zoom.

If working from home becomes the norm, then it’s worth asking how corporate cultures will survive in this brave new world. What will companies lose when those chance meetings that prompt business solutions can no longer happen? Will promotion go to the squeakiest voice on zoom? And, perhaps most importantly, how will young employees be nurtured? Who will mentor them? Train them? Finally, and this is worth considering, has working from home succeeded because we all knew it was a temporary solution – not a permanent fixture.

There is no doubt COVID had changed our working lives. For many, it has been a welcomed experience, giving them the flexibility they have always craved. In these circumstances, their employers are probably benefitting from more productive (and happier) employees. For others, home is not where they want to work; they embrace the office and all it brings to their daily work experience.

Employers will now have to balance these different expectations. However they choose to do so – and successfully navigating it will certainly bring its rewards – the role of the office will remain pivotal in any solution. The fact people have worked in offices for three centuries and through multiple pandemics would suggest it’s a concept not without merit.