Imagine this. Your alarm goes off slightly earlier than usual, it’s Tuesday; office day. You look forward to putting on properly fitted clothing – especially on your bottom half. The commute is no longer the daily draining slog it once was, but a novelty you enjoy – a time to listen to that podcast and browse the newspaper. You enter the office but there’s no tapping your lanyard, thankfully, those plastic corporate medallions are no more. Virtual sign-ins and receptionists are the new modus operandi. You walk through the security which also acts as temperature check-in. The lift responds to your vocal request; every door is foot-activated.
Gone is the open-plan glass-dome with no privacy or fresh air. Gone too is the Californian-start-up style; the sleep-pods and slides lay disbanded and taped up. The office is no longer a play-zone designed to keep you there for as long as possible but a cross between a private members’ club and university campus geared for interaction, learning and concentration; at your service for however many days a week you want it.
A doctor, therapist and gym are on-site to cater to your wellbeing needs. The buffet breakfast bar has been transformed into a formal restaurant with table cloths and real cutlery. The company has embraced the French way; eating at your desk is now banned, lunches deemed crucial nourishing time with your colleagues and clients. There’s the lecture theatre where you attend hologram talks by your esteemed leader. There’s the expansive Reading Room for private focused productivity, which has the feel of a university library, with a desk booking system, printing and coffee delivered and above all, quiet, just the sound of fingers tapping on keys and the gentle hum of robotic cleaners patrolling the aisles.
But collaboration is the main reason you’re here; ideas, conversations and projects that take an exhausting number of fixed hours over Zoom but when done face-to-face take on a momentum of their own. You appreciate the free-flowing conversation and soak up the unscheduled interjections, whispered comments, banter and impromptu jokes (however bad) with your colleagues. You re-learn how to read body language. Interaction feels creative and real once more. But not everyone in the meeting is in the office: you put on your VR headset and welcome your colleague’s avatar like an old friend. You realise an uncomfortable truth: your social life is now in your office, and your work life is now in your home.
These are predictions, of course. But one thing is certain; flexible working is no longer in dispute, the point and purpose of the office is. Moneypenny, a company providing virtual receptions, and PAs to businesses across the UK, has seen a huge shift in thinking and resources around the office. A recent survey they conducted revealed that 53 per cent of UK companies have accelerated their use of tech by a year and 22 per cent said they had accelerated by more than five years. Changes in tech and personnel have not only happened fast but will fundamentally change office operations in the long term.
Perhaps the CEO of Pearson, Andy Bird was right to say that companies are the new universities; indeed, it’s a culture that Google with its “campus” has long-embraced. Learning and development will soon become the most important department in the company, the key method of attracting the learning-driven young talent, for keeping older colleagues up to date and the main reason for having an HQ. Everyone knows how uninspiring online learning can be; just ask current undergrads.
Collaboration too will be the central pull of the office but this will not be easy to generate with a fluid workforce divided. Tricky too, when so often the passing comment in the corridor between colleagues can be as productive as the scheduled brainstorm around a table. Also, while flexible working may be the concept, the reality will be a preference for working from home Monday and Friday and being in the office mid-week. Let’s be clear, this is not flexible working, this is a significant tampering with the rhythm of business and a re-scripting of the working week and indeed the entire year, which will feel especially pronounced during the summer months and school holidays. Restaurants, shops and commuter newspapers beware.
Women reportedly want hybrid working more than men but all companies must be mindful that the office doesn’t become male-dominated as in the past. So much of the Diversity & Inclusion agenda is about visibility and the nurturing of mentoring and supportive networks; how can this be done if a large chunk of women are not physically present? Representation doesn’t work remotely. BAME workers should feel this even more keenly. The responsibility for this however lies not with individuals but with companies to ensure that remote workers are not penalised. Younger employees are more likely to want to return to the office, but again, there is a danger with this imbalance that the office ends up feeling like a youth club part of the week until the grown-ups show up. Managing a multi-generational team is increasingly a challenge and the office building has a critical function in bridging the gap through greater interaction and mentoring.
The great pivot to remote working has parallels in the shift from “bricks to clicks” in commerce, but the truth is that workers, like consumers, want both. And it will be the companies who are able to embrace this with enthusiasm, personalisation and vision who will succeed in the new era of work.