The Office of the Future

It’s been an interesting year for people who used to go into an office to work every day. The pandemic has forced almost everyone into a work from home (WFH) situation. With vaccination rates rising and infections starting to wane, companies are starting to mull over plans for returning to the office. It begs the question, what will the office of the future look like? Will it be a return to the way it was, or will companies ditch their office spaces en masse and embrace the WFH model?

Certainly, the WFH model has been great for a lot of employees. It has saved people from long commutes. It’s allowed them to focus on their work with fewer interruptions and distractions. It’s allowed some (but not all) to balance their personal and work lives given the flexibility in working hours. However, these benefits have not been shared equally.

WFH has been great for senior level employees, particularly those in management. Senior level employees are typically the ones most prone to interruptions. Their time and attention is in constant demand while in the office. When they are not in meetings, interruptions occur frequently from people stopping by to ask a question, request help, or just get an opinion on something. WFH significantly curtails these interruptions. It allows senior employees to reach new levels of productivity. As Matt Blumberg points out, some have become addicted to the ruthless efficiency that WFH enables. While the product and efficiency gains are great, it comes at a cost to less experienced and less tenured employees, which hurts the company overall.

In a similar article, titled The Tension That Will Come With the Future of Work, Blumberg makes great points regarding the segment of the workforce that needs time in the office.

That some people like, want to, need to, or benefit from working in offices more often than not.

That those people are some of the most talented, creative, and high potential people in an organization.

And that those people are frequently the ones with the least “voice” in an organization — new employees, younger workers, introverts, and people from underrepresented groups.

A new employee, particularly one who is new to the workforce, is at a significant disadvantage under the WFH model. Since they do not have prior work experience, they’re not familiar nor comfortable approaching senior employees to ask questions or request help. To make matters worse, senior employees can unintentionally ignore junior employees, which further alienate and isolate them. As senior employees become more and more addicted to their new productivity and efficiency gains, they shut-off channels that junior employee use to ask questions such as email, collaboration tools, or messaging applications. It’s a problem that I’ve witnessed first hand.

Therefore, I envision a hybrid model with hotel offices and shared workspaces that will eventually win out. It allows companies to recognize cost savings through a significant reduction in office footprint, facilities maintenance, and associated expenses while still enjoying the benefits of having employees in the office to build the social bonds, shared understanding, and cultural norms that are necessary to build and sustain a company.

Under the hybrid approach, senior members of staff will be encouraged to spend more, not less, time in the office. Companies will turn their office into co-working spaces where employees can reserve desk space. Managers and team leads can schedule conference rooms for weekly staff meetings, project planning meetings, and design reviews. In addition to working together, employees will get to build and partake in the social interactions they desire which have been largely absent from our work environments over the last year.

Certainly there will be exceptions to the rule. Some companies were remote before the pandemic, and they have the WFH model dialed in. They understand how to on-board employees. They know how to build the corporate culture remotely through collaboration tools, although I would contend that employees need to have some face time to build the social bonds necessary to create a strong corporate culture. I leads me to believe that companies that were previously all remote may find a hybrid model more advantageous.

Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum, there are those companies who struggle with the WFH model and want to have everyone if the office. While these companies may still succeed, they will face several challenges in the new work environment. Not only will they incur higher operating costs, but they will also limit their talent pool. Even though people may want to be in the office, they still like the flexibility of WFH. Additionally, companies with more flexible WFH policies will be able to draw talent from a wider area since employees don’t have to commute to the office every day.

At the end of the day, WFH is here to stay, but the office is not doomed either. A hybrid model that blends the best of both worlds is what I see as the office of the future.