Under Review: Future of the workplace

According to an etymology dictionary, the word “office” was first used to describe a “building or room to conduct business” in the late 14 century.

As entire workforces have been working from home due to the pandemic, it’s fair to say that an office’s definition has been altered irrevocably in the last eight weeks in the UK.

A recent article in The Economist’s 1843 magazine titled “Death of the office” starts by quoting an employee in one of the world’s first offices, the East India Company in London, describing the workplace to his friend in a letter. He said: “You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief, day after day, all the golden hours of the day between ten and four.” So, has the current situation made us question the need for having offices in the first place?

No doubt, the pandemic has sped up a revolution in home working leaving offices around the world empty. Asset management firms have embraced remote working tools and replaced face-to-face meetings with video conference calls and webinars. Where previously people saw art in meeting rooms, they now see home bookshelves and kitchens on Zoom and Skype.

However, the role of the office was under review even before the pandemic. A combination of rising rents, the digital revolution and increased demands for flexible working meant more and more people were raising questions over the utility of offices and looking to work remotely. According to a BBC 5 Live Wake Up To Money analysis, the number of people working from their own home surged by 74% between 2008 and 2018.

Furthermore, the “hip” design of modern workspaces including desk-sharing, openplan, higher density and a blending of work with relaxation had already been drawing criticism as people noted there is a fine line between a workplace with buzz and one with distracting noise.

In fact, research in 2019 found that open-plan offices, with shared desks, were more likely than old-fashioned “cellular” arrangements to lead to a feeling of “dehumanisation” i.e. people felt like they were treated like robots. This means that design changes in the workplace intended to combine cost efficiency with creative energy could sometimes create the opposite result. An FT opinion article described hot desking as the “the penny-pinching ploy that strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots.”

The thinking behind getting more people in less space and certain elements of “agile” working has clearly been challenged by the threat of the pandemic’s contagion. Firms will need to carefully assess all risks associated with contemporary office design going forward.

Leaked guidance documents drawn up by ministers to form the basis of UK’s lockdown exit plans specifically urge firms and staff to avoid the use of hot desks and encourage them to use remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings. However, even after the “conditional plan” to reopen society unveiled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday, in the short term, the case for those who can work from home remains that they must continue to do so.

Anne Richards, CEO of Fidelity International, said during a City Week COVID-19 webinar: “We don’t think we’ll have 100% of staff back in the workplace for 18 months probably, at a minimum”. This prediction comes as asset management firms look beyond the pandemic and assess how their employees can return to work in a phased manner once lockdown restrictions have been eased. It’s clear that when all staff return to the workplace, certain practices especially around seating will not be the same as they were before the pandemic and there might be more significant changes as well.

Looking at the long-term future, the “office” as we know it won’t die altogether but will certainly evolve. And what it will look like in the next few years will be decided in the coming months, as firms rethink their business strategies to be flexible and resilient to retain productivity in a crisis. As Barclays Chief Executive Jess Staley aptly said in a press conference in April: “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

 

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