And suddenly, we’re all working at home. It happened from one day to the next. With no warning, and no preparation, this unprecedented experiment in home working kicked off on a global scale. Then the doomsayers began to proclaim the end of the office. After the pandemic, apparently, we’ll all be working from home and the concept of corporate space will be a dinosaur from another era.
In fact, I believe nothing is more unlikely.
The concepts of home and teleworking are not new. Since technology has made it possible to work anywhere at any time, several companies have attempted to exploit this with mixed results, including the unfortunate experiences of IBM and Yahoo.
Being able to work productively from home depends on three factors: environment (having a safe, suitable space with adequate furniture, light and temperature); technology (access to functional equipment and connectivity), and behaviour (people’s ability to work unsupervised and schedule daily tasks and routines).
Organisational culture is also a factor. Fluid and effective communication is crucial, along with the ability of management to lead remotely and focus on what is relevant. Trusting people to meet their objectives in their own time and way is more important than the number of hours they spend sitting at their desks.
In practice, it’s rare for all these factors to align. Even if the world of work does start to evolve towards a new reality without corporate offices (unlikely), ultimately it will never be viable.
Here are three key reasons why organisations will continue to require corporate office space.
1. The home environment
Only a privileged few have adequate space in their homes to work in a safe, comfortable and interruption-free environment.
According to the Criteria survey recently carried out in Chile, only 36% of those surveyed said they had the necessary conditions for teleworking. In the UK, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) carried out a homeworkers wellbeing survey which found that after just two weeks, participants reported a significant decline in musculoskeletal health, increased fatigue and sleep disorders, decreased physical activity, a poorer diet, and worried more about finances, isolation and work/life balance.
These negative experiences would be compounded if the entire workforce is working 100% of its time from home.
2. Organisational culture
Human beings are by nature gregarious. Isolation (which has little to do with loneliness) adversely affects people both mentally and physically.
Every organisation operates as a society in miniature. Physical distance removes the social barometer that normally guides our understanding of how to behave towards other people within that society.
To build a common culture, it’s necessary to share values and identify ourselves as a group. We need to gain an understanding of our colleagues’ character – their talents, tastes and fears. It’s important to generate an esprit de corps, creating a mystique unique to the organisation and aligning ourselves behind a common purpose. This is the invisible force that binds a company, and it is almost impossible to create it remotely. As strategic innovation consultant Xavier Marcet says: “Organisational culture is what happens when nobody watches.”
Ultimately, the key to a company’s health and the achievement of long-term goals lies in identity and organisational DNA.
Technology, globalisation, climate change and the rise of new generations are creating new paradigms at an ever increasing rate. Disruptions lurk behind every corner and business models can soon become redundant. Businesses need to quickly grasp new realities in order to adapt, reinvent themselves and stay competitive. The COVID-19 pandemic is a brutal example.
This is why innovation has become so important to corporations. Without innovation there is no evolution; it has been scientifically proven that creation does not arise from an enlightened genius in a glass dome, but from the active exchange of ideas between people with different views. This is just as likely to happen during relaxed, casual meetings as formal brainstorming sessions.
If we all stay at home, connecting via scheduled videoconferences with preset agendas, innovation will hardly flourish. This could mark the beginning of a company’s decline and loss of competitiveness.
A flexible future
Contract Workplaces in Latin America recently conducted a survey with more than 2,000 participants. Asked where they would choose to work when the quarantine is over, more than 83% said they wanted the flexibility to choose the place most appropriate for them.
This is why I believe the polycentric office will be the new standard for most of us in the near future. We can work from home, in the corporate office or in another kind of space – coworking spaces, cafés, libraries, satellite offices – depending on what is most appropriate and convenient. This offers numerous advantages: less commuting, lower carbon footprint, enhanced wellbeing, better work/life balance, lower costs for both companies and employees, and more agile and productive teams.
In the medium term, it is harder to predict. Today’s industries are at the mercy of constantly changing, volatile markets which make it almost impossible to define what a company’s space needs are likely to be.
Organisations will need more flexibility in terms of the square footage they will utilise to house their operations. They will also want to minimise capital costs. This makes the ‘office as a service’ model highly convenient for the times. Companies take on a ready-to-use space with maintenance as part of the service package, leaving them free to focus on operational expenditure. The space can grow or shrink according to the organisation’s needs – flexibility is the name of the game.
JLL recently reported that since 2010, the Flex Office model has been expanding in Latin America at an average rate of 23% per year. It projects that by 2030, 30% of corporate office space will operate on this basis. The trend is expected to accelerate following the COVID-19 pandemic.
To conclude, the forced experiment in home working has provided us with invaluable lessons which organisations need to absorb and capitalise on when we return to normality. Only then can we design and build a world better suited to the way we want to work.
By Victor Feingold, CEO Contract Workplaces