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Reports of the Death of the Office Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
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By Jordan Whitmarsh
If you will allow an indulgence of a paraphrase of Mark Twain’s frequently misrepresented quote: “the reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated.”
I’ve heard many reports of the death of the corporate office in the post-pandemic world. Human nature dictates the office is here to stay. The question is, what for?
As corporations have now had a deeper opportunity to analyze the impact of the global pandemic on their workforces, reports and opinions are coming thick and fast describing ‘the new normal’ and the future of work. It’s clear that that future is based increasingly on working remotely – but that was true well before the world ever heard the fateful term: Covid-19. I’ve spent most of my career advancing that reality.
It is true, though. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The future of work will never be the same. For the office-based, more and more hours will be spent working outside of the traditional corporate premises. For others, their work continues to be disrupted in other ways: through artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT). All rapidly accelerated by the pandemic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously said that Microsoft had seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months.”
During this unprecedented crisis the world had no alternative. For some that choice was as stark as allowing home working or shutting down the business. In my experience, the perception of home working is shifting – I have seen many managers who simply do not trust that those employees that they cannot see are actually working. This leads to an organizational resistance to the remote working trend. I’ve heard all the excuses: it “doesn’t fit our culture”, “productivity will nose-dive,” or more simply, “why would we want to do that??”. The answer here is, like any other change, it must be proactively managed to build the new competencies required to succeed.
It took a global pandemic and its economic shutdowns to demonstrate that this mistrust is misplaced. With the near ubiquity of high-bandwidth home Internet connections and modern communication and collaboration technologies, not only can employees be trusted to work remotely, it can have significant (although not universal) benefits. These employees and their managers are forming new relationships with the technologies and building new relationships with each other. Although It’s not always smooth sailing, a recent UK survey found that 91% of people would prefer to have the option to continue to work from home.
But even so, this will not kill the office. Deep down we are social creatures. We rely on cooperation to survive, innovate, and thrive. People need people and some are already saying the honeymoon for home working may be over.
In the 1970’s, Tom Allen, a professor at MIT, concluded that the greater the distance between engineers’ desks the less frequently they communicated. Biksen and Eveland found similar patterns for email in the mid-80s. Allen revisited the “Allen Curve” in 2006 to explore the impact of modern communications technologies and found that the principal holds true. “As face-to-face probability decays, our data show a decay in the use of all communications media with distance.”
Communication is the backbone of collaboration. Collaboration underpins innovation. Innovation drives an organization’s competitiveness. So, to be competitive, effective communication is crucial and the office must become the place where face-to-face collaboration is prized above all else.
As more of your workforce is enabled, empowered, and encouraged to work remotely, the role of the office changes. It is no longer a space where people have to come and work but becomes a place where people choose to come and work. That choice is driven by the type of work being undertaken. Sitting in eight hours of conference calls, or focus on that urgent report? Stay home. Need to collaborate on a tricky problem or find a source of inspiration? Come together in a physical space – specifically designed for the purpose.
The global workforce has proven throughout the pandemic that it can continue to be productive. My fear, however, is that this productivity is largely focussed on maintaining status-quo. Making use of relationship networks that already exist. Continuing to execute on existing plans, to reformulate those plans for the Covid era. But the disruptive innovation that pushes us all forwards is taking a back seat.
Nothing beats the sparks of innovation that fly when people get together. Or that “high” when they create something new. We benefit from myriad unscheduled interactions: snippets of conversation in an elevator, the emotional boost from a joke at the coffee machine, and the social wellbeing of being surrounded by likeminded people who share your work-life goals.
The office must refactor to become a place designed, both physically and digitally, to become a hub for collaboration and innovation. Reduce the rows of desks and replace with spaces designed to inspire and foster creativity. There is also an opportunity for these spaces to much better represent the values and culture of your organization – values which have, no doubt, been under stress during this most difficult of years. These spaces must be intelligent enough to respond to the dynamic needs of a changing workforce and digital enablement is central to their effectiveness moving forward – from high-performance connectivity to tailored AV solutions, location awareness, and a reduction in the barriers between digital and in-person collaboration.
Mark Twain also said: “the really great [people] make you feel that you can become great.” When this period of history is behind us, the impact of these great strides in remote working we’ve experienced in the past 12 months will have been almost immediately forgotten, but their implications will not. They will simply be consumed in the new default way of working.
Many millions of people across the world will be able to choose both where and how they work based on the activities they are undertaking. That choice is empowering. Liberating even. For those who choose to come to the office they will see the acres of sterile cubicles swept away, replaced with spaces that serve new purposes: fostering creativity and innovation. Workers will engage and inspire. The spaces will bring us together. And I can’t wait. The office is dead. Long live the office.
Jordan Whitmarsh is a worldwide digital advisor for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, focused on the incubation of innovative approaches and solutions across the services portfolio. In an edge-centric, data-driven, and cloud-enabled world, he is an evangelist for the role that digital plays in advancing the way we live and work with a keen interest in how the digital edge shapes value creation and technology interaction and how the technology supply chain makes it happen. Jordan spent more than 12 years working with HPE customers around the world to help them execute on their disruptive transformation agendas across cloud, edge, IoT and workplace solutions.