There is a great debate raging around the world on the future of office spaces. Many are trying to return to the way things were, while others claim the modern office is dead.
Huge companies are following Twitter’s example in saying that their workforce can work from home forever. At the most basic level, Health Departments and Labour Departments in most countries have also come up with regulations that require as employees head back to offices, employers must have screening facilities, facilitate physical distancing, provide masks and hand sanitizer.
But even with these measures in place, it’s not a case of walking back into the office like it was before, especially considering how much is still being learnt every day about the coronavirus. There is much that is uncertain as companies gradually open their offices, including whether they might have to reverse their decision and close up again.
The global lockdowns have also caused uncertainty about the future of the office as we know it, and many articles have looked into asking questions such as “Is this the end of office life?”, and many articles declaring “Work From Home Is Here to Stay”
But does this mean we will be leaving the office for good?
Working from home has several advantages and a number of disadvantages as well. The implementation of WFH during the pandemic has undoubtedly worked better than many had anticipated and should lead to an increased adaptation of more flexible work models.
The often-cited advantages are lower-to-no commute times, flexible working hours, and with those, an improved work-life balance.
Well, despite this we think The Office Is Not Dead and it is just evolving for better. There is still huge value to be had from a dedicated office space: the company culture, accessible communication, and personal support, just to name a few.
Let’s first look at the advantages and disadvantages that come from working from home.
Flexible schedule. You can take breaks at any moment, feel no rush to hang up on your family members when they call and eat lunch at any weird time you want.
Custom environment. Set up your noise level just the way you want it — somewhere between insanely quiet to being at the front row of a Lady Gaga concert. And if you’re mindful of your workspace ergonomics, you can create a stronger rhythm for your workflows.
It’s easier to make calls. You won’t have to scramble to find a conference room or deal with a particularly chatty co-worker. (Granted, kids and pets at home can make this tough for some remote employees.)
No office distractions. Avoid co-workers debating the merits of cryptocurrency, sirens wailing outside your window, the AC kicking in as you hide your icicle tears.
Zero commuting. From bed to … bed?
Save money. Lunch is expensive if you work in a city or downtown. In San Francisco, it’s not crazy to see a $15 sandwich or $4 coffee. At home, you can save big time by going to the store and preparing food.
Here are a few drawbacks that come with the WFH paradigm should limit extreme adaptation of WFH and will protect office demand in the long term.
Shaky WiFi. At home or in a cafe, when the wifi starts to spaz and you switch locations a couple of times but honestly spend more time parking and ordering a 6-shot mint mojito coffee with coconut milk and 16 grains of sugar than doing work.
Information flow can be asymmetric and lead to dissatisfaction and a feeling of disconnection. For senior-level employees, this could result in an imbalance in decision-making and an exacerbation of political tensions, as employees who are not physically present could lose influence. This may apply in the case of promotions, layoffs, and other organizational decisions.
Employees, especially those in lower ranks, will miss out on training opportunities and the ability to spontaneously join meetings and learn soft career-building skills.
The hiring process becomes more complex in a virtual world with employees potentially living in another city or state than their managers. This also complicates the creation and maintenance of a corporate culture and team unity, which in turn may reduce loyalty to a specific employer, as job changes across state lines may not even require moving the primary residence.
Questions surrounding motivation and distraction, which ultimately may lead to productivity losses when purely WFH. Personal living conditions vary by economic situation and stage of life, and can therefore complicate a productive work setup, which is already lacking inherent structure. Parents working at home may be encumbered with childcare responsibilities, and others may be distracted by roommates in a relatively small city apartment without privacy or physical working space. Not all remote working is created equal.
Lack of a work persona that breeds an office-based social world where friendships and even deeper personal relationships are forged.
So why do we think that the office is not dead?
First, pre-COVID-19 days SME demand for office space was on the rise and as the SME and Freelance space continues to boom we will definitely continue seeing the rise in demand for the coworking and dedicated office space.
These sectors relied on offices, often co-working spaces for the infrastructure and stability they provided on a day to day basis.
Looking at previous studies and the advantages that come with working from coworking spaces or even dedicated office spaces, one thing that comes out clear is that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote workers and facing a global recession, companies need to be running as efficiently as possible.
Much has been written about what these future offices will look like. Less densely packed with stricter safety measures in place, successful companies will be making plans now on how to protect their employees.
A solution to provide these shared locations in a safe way is to create high-end, bookable office spaces for company meetings and “away days”.
From in house cafes, technology infrastructure and productivity tools, the services these locations provide would be unparalleled to anything a fully remote team could access.
Another reason is that offices provide an opportunity for workers to get to know one another. Ultimately, offices are more than just a place to do business — like the cities that surround them, they are meeting points for social and cultural exchanges.
Humans are social animals, and we need more contacts than those of our immediate family provide. As many of us have personally experienced over the last few months, working remotely can be extremely difficult.
Managers have found it much harder to check in with the wellbeing of their workers when isolated from them. No matter the number of videos calls and emails you send, nothing can replace an honest face to face chat.
The office acts as a safe, shared space, where issues can be amicably discussed in the hallway or more privately in a check-in.
It is even more difficult, for those joining teams. During lockdown, many have started new jobs and the usual office tours and group meetings have been replaced by video calls, some of which can be awkward when you haven’t met the people in the squares.
They’re missing out on the casual conversations you get from office life and the opportunities to really get to know their colleagues. It’s extremely difficult to pick up on subtle body language cues and the intention behind a person’s email when you haven’t met boost team morale and productivity.
The other reason is that most homes especially in Nairobi are quite tiny. In a city such as Nairobi, which is densely packed with tiny apartments, it’s simply not viable for many people to work from home indefinitely. Many employees just don’t have the room to set up a home office. And living in such cramped quarters, they need to get out regularly.
We also need to keep in mind that there are still many jobs that can’t be done remotely. In any case, most people just don’t want to get rid of the workplace, they just don’t want to be there all the time. This applies across all developed markets where the technology is adequate to enable remote working,
New Office Dynamics
As working from home becomes more effective, the way people see and use space is also changing and will continue to change as the world continues to navigate the pandemic. Some of these changes will be temporary while others will be long-lasting, if not permanent, changes.
The good news is that the office is not dead, and it never will be. While it is possible for people to effectively work remotely, there is nothing that can fully substitute in-person, face-to-face interactions.