@newyorker journalist John Seabrook asks the question whether the pandemic has transformed the office forever. He summarises the existential questions as “What’s an office for? Is it a place for newbies to learn from experienced colleagues? A way for bosses to oversee shirkers? A platform for collaboration? A source of friends and social life? A respite from family? A reason to leave the house?” The pandemic has taught us many things, but in particular, that you don’t need a physical office to carry out work.

Seabrook explores the evolution of the office and the introduction of open plan and its iterations. He also visits some US offices that are going through their own analysis of these existential questions. Their organisational surveys suggest that staff, whilst locked down at home, are complaining about the loss of spontaneous interactions with colleagues, integrating new hires effectively, zoom fatigue, and ergonomically incorrect seating. Not to mention the juggle of caring for young children whilst “working”.

A reflection from one business with a head office in New York about a benefit found that the branch offices in other cities and countries have felt more equal to their head office counterparts since the move to remote working.

Offices that are large and based in CBDs are contemplating setting up smaller offices in their surrounding suburbs, closer to their staff. The office will take on a different purpose, primarily to bring people together.

Since the early 1990s there has been a transition in many physical workplaces to open plan, and shared amenities to bring people together and entice them to come to, and stay at, work. Table tennis, skateboard ramps, music and yoga rooms and a choice of cafeterias were considered perks of employment. In contrast, the current challenges are not about reducing footprint and perks, but ensuring that signage, sanitation and social distancing are effectively executed and communicated. Thermal temperature checks are used in some places, even though according to Seabrook, they have been shown to be ineffective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 because staff may be asymptomatic.

Perhaps most interestingly, Seabrook quotes Harvard Professor Ethan Bernstein who believes a hybrid set up is very hard to get right, as it “delivers the worst of both worlds”. “A hybrid company still has substantial real-estate costs, and it also has to contend with the potentially serious threat to company culture posted by resentful remote workers who feel that they’ve been unfairly denied plum assignments and promotions. And what about all the people who return to work to discover that the sweaters and photographs and other personal items they left behind have been packed up …” Bernstein states “People generally prefer a ‘home’ to a ‘hotel’ – in life and at work”. Divisions in culture need to be carefully navigated.

Technology companies have always led the charge in innovation. Offices have experimented with open plan, and cubicle farms. Interestingly, I.B.M. in 2009 had 40% of its workforce working remotely and “promoted teleworking to clients as the future”. But in 2017 it directed everyone to return to the office or alternatively leave.

In the current pandemic environment, according to Seabrook, Facebook expects half its workforce to be remote by 2030… Twitter has told staff they never have to return to the physical office… Microsoft has invited only essential workers back as it reconfigures its requirements and renovations. Seabrook states that in 2010, the average North American employer allocated 200 square feet to each employee, and by 2017 that number had shrunk to 130 square feet.

What do these developments mean for Australian workplaces as employers re-assess their requirements? We can be assured that:

  • there will be further outlay for setting staff up in dual workplaces (hopefully to be off-set by the savings in a smaller real-estate footprint and the generosity of staff who currently are using their own technological devices);
  • staff consultation will be essential to ensure the new solutions take account of the actual needs of staff, not what is presumed to be their needs. Not to do so risks losing talent. Employers will be familiar with their obligations to consult with their award or agreement covered staff with respect to changes in work location, however consultation with all staff about this issue is recommended;
  • the physical work space will be smaller in many places, as we know that on a wholesale basis staff self-select to work more days from home. The physical office will therefore be built with new functions in mind.

While the physical workspace is being reimagined, like with every successful house renovation, it should not be rushed. However employers, especially in Melbourne, Australia and other countries affected by the pandemic, can’t afford to wait too long. This is because there will be many staff who are super keen to return to “normal transmission” and being face to face with their colleagues. Whoever thought that this might be considered a perk of employment.

To find John Seabrook’s article, go to: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever