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Has coronavirus killed the office?

The new normal

In just over three months, almost the entirety of UK corporate offices have moved to the living rooms and kitchens of their employees. It seems that people are getting used to it too, with children wandering into conference calls and barking dogs in the background now widely accepted as a daily occurrence. 

As lockdown restrictions start to ease, companies across the country are beginning to wonder what their workspaces will look like in a post-pandemic world. But with COVID-19 prompting an almost seamless transition to remote working, it begs the question: Do we even need an office?

Going remote

Many of the world’s office workers haven’t seen their desks for weeks, and there may be fewer to return to when restrictions ease. With companies facing the sudden need to cut costs, shrinking their real estate footprint seems like a good place to start. Jes Staley from Barclays commented, “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” 

With employees and business owners both pleased with the time and money saved by not having to commute, there seems to be little need or want to rush back to the office. In fact, many companies have announced plans to remain fully virtual until at least the end of this year, and some have even made remote working permanent, such as Twitter, who said it will allow employees to work from home “forever” if they wish.

A sense of normality 

We’ve seen years worth of digital transformation happen within three months, with businesses realising it was adapt-or-bust. But not all companies are on board with staying remote permanently, and while many have said the transition to home working was relatively smooth, it doesn’t mean it’s a suitable long-term solution.

The daily interaction, lunchtime chats and social energy created in an office environment is part and parcel of the job for many – an atmosphere that is impossible to replicate whilst working from home. Human interactions drive connection and innovation, and with today’s increasingly collaborative workload, remote working isn’t always productive.

“A lot of our best ideas come from company-wide brainstorming sessions when you’re bouncing ideas around the room. You just don’t get the same creativity on a Zoom call.” – Jake Madders, Co-Director of Hyve Managed Hosting

Office makeover

For those who do want to return to the office, post-pandemic makeovers may include the repositioning of desks to adhere to social distancing, hand sanitising stations dotted around the office, outdoor workspaces for collaboration and open windows to allow airflow.

The reluctancy for employees to touch anything (lift buttons, door handles) may even lead to an increase in the use of voice assistants and AI within the workplace. Perhaps doors will be opened by voice command, or lifts called by heat sensors?

There is talk of a staggered return to the office and possible shift work, with offices only half-occupied to ensure a safe distance between colleagues. With a mix between home workers and office workers, not only will businesses have to keep on top of their PPE supplies, but think about upgrading their IT infrastructure too. 

The office of the future

The office of the future looked very different pre-coronavirus. From Apple’s on-site wellness centre to Google’s sleep pods, old offices were designed for people to want to spend most of their time at work. Now, businesses are having to re-think their plans to accommodate employees who want to spend more time at home. 

So how will businesses reinvent their working environment? Perhaps fixed desk space will be repurposed into collaboration areas or meeting rooms, or larger central headquarters will be swapped for smaller regional hubs. It seems that flexibility will be key to the future of work; some employees might want to be in the office every day, while some may want to come in a few times a week for meetings.  

One thing is for sure – there will always be a need for human interaction, and while office centricity may be over, the office itself isn’t quite dead yet.