Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

The great office reset 

The great office reset 

To understand the future of the office we need to look at its history
By Arielle Domb
11th Feb 2021

To understand the future of the office we need to look at its history

With vaccines being rolled out globally, a post-pandemic world is finally imaginable. Each passing day is one day closer to going ‘back to normal’. 

The question the working world is now asking is: do we actually want to go back? Back to the 9 to 5 grind – commuting to a busy city centre, standing up on the underground, arriving home after dark? Or, have the events of the last year changed the way we work forever?

How we got here

It’s easy to forget that our work habits have had a few dramatic evolutions over the past hundred years. Even the structure of a working week – coming into an office from 9 to 5 for five days a week – is a relatively recent development. The 48-hour weekend was only established during the Great Recession in the 1930s, saving thousands of jobs by cutting the number of working hours in the week.

New technologies, from the lightbulb to the smartphone, have also transformed the length of the average working day, enabling us to continue working after dark or to communicate with colleagues globally, 24/7.

The impact of these shifting social, economic and technological forces is best embodied in the physical space of the office. A hundred years ago, offices felt a lot like factories. Inspired by the influential industrial engineer, Frederick Taylor, workers were crammed together in uniform rows as their bosses observed from a private room. This design, he theorised, would maximise employee productivity, lower costs and maximise profits.

But in the 1940s, the second world war prompted a shift in mentality. Taylor’s hierarchical, cattle-like style of workforce didn’t sit well with the egalitarian principles of the postwar world and a new style of office emerged.

Bürolandschaft, or ‘office landscape’, promised something radically different. Instead of organised rows, staff of all levels were encouraged to sit together on one open floor. Non-hierarchical in structure, the design emphasised communication and collaboration between everyone. 

Seventy years later and the open-plan office continues to be the dominant workplace layout, being used cross-sector by tech giants and law firms alike. 

It’s also the predominant design used in coworking spaces, which have been a more recent development in the evolution of the workplace. The first modern coworking space opened in 2005, and has since become a full-blown industry, increasing in number by 1000% between 2008 and 2018, and providing people with a whole new way of working. 

With the rise of coworking spaces, it felt like the office was on the cusp of its next evolution. And then the pandemic hit, throwing the role of the office into an existential crisis.

The first modern coworking space opened in 2005, and has since become a full-blown industry, increasing in number by 1000% between 2008 and 2018

The death of the office?

Conversations about flexible work are not new, yet it took a government-enforced lockdown for the idea to gain traction. Realising that we can quite easily perform many tasks at home that we would usually do in the office forced us to examine our work practices. 

Does it still make sense to travel into the same physical space each day, when it exhausts us and contributes to the warming of the planet? Can technology supplement face-to-face meetings? Is the chatter of an open plan office just distracting us from getting stuff done? And fundamentally: if we have adjusted to working from home, do we need to go back to the office at all? 

Research conducted by YouGov suggests employees will be reluctant to give up their working from home lifestyles. Prior to the outbreak, 68% of British employees never worked from home, but the pandemic has caused a drastic shift in expectation, with fewer than four in ten wanting to leave their house to go to work when the pandemic is over. 

And it’s not just the luxury of being able to work in pyjamas that is discouraging people from going back into the office. According to one survey by Work After Lockdown, nine out of ten people felt they got more – or at least as much – done at home as they had in their offices. 

What was valued most, however, was flexibility, particularly to those who had experienced working at home during the pandemic. Among those participating in the YouGov survey who were working from home now but weren’t before the pandemic, 91% said they want to continue to do so at least some of the time once the pandemic is over.

The idea of full-time flexibility is gaining ammunition. The chief executives of Barclays and WPP have also both said they would like to see flexible working become the new normal. Last month, Unilever boss Alan Jope confirmed that the multinational company would be adopting a hybrid model, meaning that many of the company’s 150,000 global employees would alternate between working at home and at the office.

“We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office,” Jope said. “That seems very old-fashioned now.”

 “We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office,” Jope said. “That seems very old-fashioned now.”

What’s working?

One undeniable positive of everyone being forced to work remotely is that it’s opened the door to more inclusive work environments. Pre-pandemic, remote working was the most requested but refused accommodation for disabled people. Since lockdown, however, the necessity of staying home has proven that companies can adapt to home working.

The pandemic has shown that flexibility is possible. Research has long established that remote work can help mothers ease the conflict between their work and family responsibilities. 

However, the inclusivity of remote working is entirely dependent on the type of work spaces available at home. According to research from Leesman, individuals who had a dedicated room at home to work in tended to have a better work experience than they did in the office, while those who worked in non-work specific areas at home, such as a sofa, had a better experience in the office overall.

It’s also worth noting that there is a big distinction between how employees perceive the quality of their productivity, and how productive they actually are. Leesman’s research also indicates that while individuals do perform better in independent activities (like reading and thinking) at home, all collaboration activities, as well as formal meetings, are better supported in the office.

The social aspect of an office is also missing when working remotely. Chatting to a coworker by the water fountain or coffee machine might seem menial when working in an office every day, but these are vital moments to learn from one another. Video conferencing eliminates spontaneity. The fluidity and innovative sparks of unplanned conversation can’t be scheduled into a calendar.

Of course, virtual interaction has its own unique social benefits. According to research from R/GA, virtual meetings led to “more voices are being heard and better meeting etiquette.” Participants noted better turn-taking during meetings and enhanced collaboration between an entire time when working from home.

The mass of conflicting studies and nuanced findings demonstrates that we cannot think about remote work in a blanket way. Just as coming into the office for five days a week can be inefficient, working from home can be equally cumbersome if it is imposed rigidly, without being well thought out.

What the pandemic has ultimately highlighted is that no two individuals have the same experience of work. Every single employee has a unique set of commitments, support systems, and characteristics that impact their work on a daily basis. When we tune into this, we can create environments in which individuals and companies thrive.

What the pandemic has ultimately highlighted is that no two individuals have the same experience of work.

As the possibility of getting back to business as usual looms on the horizon, we can hope for something better: workspaces which are more inclusive, better tailored to productive work, and overall more enjoyable spaces to spend our days. It is adaptability that has allowed employers to keep their workers motivated during the pandemic, and it is ultimately this mindset that will shape how businesses will succeed in the future.