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  • Writer's pictureLesley McAdams

Workers will come back. To the office.

There will be lasting changes in the way we do work. I believe the shift to a completely disseminated workforce is temporary. Workers will come back to an office environment, but the office will be changed.

Offices of the future will be smaller and more adaptable. Hopefully, the seas of cubicles will get the swift kick out the door we’ve been hoping for since practically the moment they emerged and more individual offices within suites will take their place.

The clear benefits of being together still exist

Much has been written already about the increase in innovation, camaraderie, and validation workers receive from a shared office environment. The NY Times tech reporter Kevin Roose writes about what is lost when working from home:

“Research shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators and team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.” (Sorry, But Working From Home Is Overrated. March 10,2020)

Steve Jobs felt that employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into one another.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” - Steve Jobs

In a completely disseminated workforce, as even IBM discovered, team cohesion and creative problem solving often suffered

COVID-19 forced us to temporarily make other plans

We saw a perceptible shift in workplace fluidity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic already: Workers telecommuting, often from out of state. While the technology existed to make this possible, it was not always successful and the pressure to integrate these tools wasn’t there.

Many of us have now been forced to figure out this new infrastructure and how best to communicate with colleagues through new channels and, admittedly, this has led to some efficiency gains. I saw a meme recently of a man sitting at a computer thinking to himself “that meeting really could have been done over email.” Most of us can identify with that guy.

While the current demand for these programs has caused glitches and delays, I suspect that now that shelter-in-place orders are gradually rolling off, some strain will lift. Makers of these tools are hard at work improving, fixing and/or pivoting them, so we can expect to see innovation leading to improved experiences.

While people will go back to office environments, the new normal will retain many of the flexibilities we have embraced. Parents will be able to stay home with sick kids, caregivers will be able to attend to their loved ones. In some cases, individuals with accessibility issues will be able to participate in gatherings they would have previously found difficult (hearing issues/mobility issues).

There may be some unintended consequences

Now that people have full access to the working world thanks to widespread adoption of remote meeting platforms, workers could feel pressure to participate in work at all costs. There may be a future in which individuals feel they can no longer take a sick day because they can now participate through a Zoom conference. New parents may feel pressure to head back to work earlier than they would have preferred for the same reasons.

What will emerge - Smaller office footprints and more flexibility

With newly fluid workforces, offices will exist but will likely shrink. The various ways workers use their spaces will change as well. I heard this thought echoed by a panelist on a conference call recently. The panelist advocated for smaller, local offices to provide community to workers while limiting exposure. However, most importantly, to allow workers more choice in where they want to live.

Nationwide Insurance was one of the first companies to make a move away from large office space when it closed five company campuses, leaving only its headquarters in Ohio. All employees outside of the Ohio office moved to a work-from-home format. As far as I know, they have not leased any small satellite offices to augment this new format, but I would be surprised if this were not on the horizon. I have also learned of several companies splitting their workforces into groups which alternate time in the office. Group A may come in on one week while group B comes to the office the next week. Such companies will obviously not need as much office space.

While the shift to this format has been slow, we have hit an inflection point.

Many people, often younger, were already moving to second- and third-tier cities in search of a lower cost of living and a different lifestyle. Virtual-meeting technology was already enabling this and yet, many of these smaller cities themselves created “entrepreneurial hubs”. The workforce dispersed then came back together albeit in smaller groups. Durham, NC is a prime example of this trend. Coming full circle, most creativity and innovation comes from in-person interactions. Technology has enabled a nationwide shift, yet workers still seek out professional community.

What does this mean?

Locations like Building1 are the offices of the future. In an environment where in-person interactions are essential but so is a flexible work environment, companies will benefit from workspace solutions that can adapt to the fluidity of a company’s workforce. An individual office may be used on a rotating basis but there will still be occasions where the entire company needs to meet in person and the cost of carrying that much infrequently used space just does not make financial sense. Having a shared facility provides the best of both worlds – access and efficiency.

But privacy and presence are still important which is sometimes lost in a shared office environment.

At Building1, companies have the option of leasing a private office within the space that has ample glass facing the right direction – out to the sky. The natural light in Building1 is extraordinary yet the internal walls afford privacy when you want it without compromising opportunities for community.

It is the best of both worlds and ready for your business. Call or email for a tour of our Chapel Hill, NC location.

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