In these troubled times, there is one constant and that is whenever new offices are planned, or transport upgrades announced, a chorus of voices will cry out together that it’s not needed any more. We’re working from home now, so why waste money on this they say.
It’s a soundbite though that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
It is, in fairness, difficult to say what the future will look like — after all, no one expected 2020 to feature a shortage of toilet rolls — but humans don’t evolve as fast as society changed due to the Covid shock. The lockdown is easing, and one day so will social distancing, and how will society look then?
It’ll be different, undeniably, but not as different as people think. We are still going to need new offices, and transport upgrades, even if those look slightly different than what was expected.
During the lockdown, it’s been estimated that 38% of the workforce was working from home every day, and about 8% doing so occasionally. Figures vary, but it seems that around half the UK workforce could work from home to some degree.
However, people are returning to the office, some willingly, others feeling peer pressure to comply with return to office emails from their bosses.
Shutting down large parts of the white-collar working environment has been a shock to an economy that depends on huge numbers of commuters cramming into the central business districts of urban areas, but is it likely to last?
Some people have thrived working from home. They have a spare room that’s become a small office space or a quiet home to work from and don’t really need to be in the office.
Others have struggled. Stuck in small flatshares with barely enough space for a desk, thin walls, a landlord with an indifferent attitude to decent internet services, and flatmates on furlough playing loud computer games all day, it’s been a hellish few months.
I was remarkably lucky to move into my own flat just a few months before the lockdown set in, but looking back over the past six years, I would say that two of flatshares would have been decent for working from home, two would have been unpleasant but tolerable, and one would have forced me to try and find somewhere else to live.
The majority of us though sit somewhere between the two extremes – working from home was exciting when it started, but after a few weeks, an urgent purchase of an office chair after they found the dining chair isn’t suitable for all-day use, and the kitchen is looking a bit too much like the office, and fortunately, the kids have gone back to school at last.
Just as people looked forward to the occasional work from home as a pleasant break from the daily grind in the office, people are starting to look at the occasional commute into the office in the same light.
For a lot of people, the early days of lockdown have changed over the months from the excitement of working from home to the realisation that they are now living at work – and most of us need to have a psychological break between the two worlds.
However, working from home is said to have been good for employers. Many say that productivity has risen during the lockdown. And while there is anecdotal evidence of that — it’s too soon to be absolutely certain that people are more productive. Some people are bound to be, and likewise, some people are bound not to be.
What’s not undeniable though is that the average working day has got longer.
People probably don’t notice it so much without the commute soaking up time, but people are working longer hours. Whether it’s due to the need for presenteeism, or people skipping lunch breaks, if people are working longer hours then the much-lauded increase in productivity probably isn’t as great as the headlines suggest.
The other downside that is often overlooked is the cost of working from home. How many people ended up buying a new office chair, or a desk, maybe upped their home broadband speed. The coffee isn’t free anymore.
There are cost savings of course. Lunch is cheaper for a start.
And the commute – whether by car or public transport. The money-saving from working from home has been a very lucky, and often quite a substantial windfall for most office workers.
Can that be sustained with part-time working from home? Back in 2017, I calculated that working from home just two days a week would save a Zones 1-3 train commuter some £675 per year — assuming no weekend travel.
That’s great for people who can work from home semi-regularly, those with a large enough house to have a spare room to use for an office. However, for those who are cramped into tiny flatshares because that’s all they can afford, working from home is not pleasant, and such people will need to commute in daily.
The issue though is magnified by the fact that the ability to work from home also tends to be concentrated in people on higher incomes – so those who can’t work from home, or junior office staff on lower incomes will be especially hard hit by rising transport costs.
This causes a problem in that poorer people will have to pay the full rate for commuting, while the richer homeowner will get the discount. This is arguably not sustainable.
Where public transport is largely funded by ticket sales and hence falls mainly on the lower income side of society, then a rebalancing is going to be required so that the burden of commuting is more evenly spread through society, through taxation. That will require a reversal of current government policy to reduce the amount of general taxation used to fund public transport.
Otherwise, the financial benefits of working from home will predominantly accrue to the richer side of society.
Working remotely does have downsides. The social banter in the office, the watercooler chats that can lead to serendipitous ideas, the picking up on social clues that come from working in teams in the same room. Much of this vanishes when working remotely.
It can be argued that we haven’t really suffered from this and maybe the benefits of office work are exaggerated, but we are in a honeymoon period where the WFH group have already spent months or years working in close proximity to their colleagues. This will diminish over time, new staff joining and lacking the induction to the office and their ties to the workplace being weaker because of it. Outside of formal education, the shared office space is one of the best places to pick up the extra skills and experience that help with a career.
Chatting on video calls can only convey so much before there’s a sense of something missing in the communication.
People are going to need to congregate again, eventually – not just because of the social urges, but also the employers will start to lose out on the collaborative working that comes from putting like-minded people in the same space together – and the employees lose out on gaining workplace experience from the same effect.
If you think that’s not a significant benefit — Google, the arch-expert in modelling people behaviour deliberately designs its canteens so that queues for food are long enough to promote conversations, and hence fresh ideas, but not so long as to waste time. Bloomberg’s remarkable London office has a central staircase that’s designed to allow people to converse on their walk and has seating around the staircase so that people can easily spot each other if they need to grab a quick chat.
Most of us do not work in such enlightened/controlling (delete as appropriate) working environments, but companies still need to encourage some degree of serendipitous conversations and ideas sharing.
It’s hard to do that over a zoom call.
So there’s a commercial imperative then for companies to pull people back into a shared space again.
Assuming, hoping, that social distancing eventually goes the way of the Dodo, then what will the office look like?
Offices are already starting to draw people back – with limits on how many people can be in the building at any one time. Often it’s not the desks that are the issue, as these can be given screens and protections, and people can usually spread out a bit — the limiting factor is more mundane. How many people can use the stairs or lifts, are there enough toilets in the building if they adopt a single person at a time policy? How can they cope with the kitchen space?
It’s likely that by the time we can all return to the office though that some habits about remote working patterns will be ingrained. It’s said that it takes three months for the average person to learn a new habit that becomes habitual, and social distancing in society is going to be around for quite some time to come.
However, looking further ahead, it’s quite likely that some degree of remote working will remain, simply because for all its downsides, there are enough gains to make it worth some degree of working from home.
Remote working was already a slow-growing trend, and it’s been suggested that some existing trends accelerated — such as online grocery shopping — showing five years worth of expected growth in five months, and working from home is also likely to have seen such a boost to the long term trend as well.
However, that’s from a tiny base of office workers who routinely worked from home on a reasonably regular basis. Over the years the numbers who can work permanently from home will grow but is unlikely to reach a majority position.
We are likely to face a future where the majority of people become part-time office workers, probably coming in and hot-desking where there is an available desk to use.
This paradoxically then is likely to see more offices being built, not fewer.
Many people work in older offices, and these lack flexibility. The rebuilding trend for offices is partly to demolish a smaller building and put something bigger in its place, but mainly about creating space that is more suitable for the modern office environment – and for the office owner, more likely to attract paying tenants.
That has sadly often meant open-plan offices, which are now considered to have been an unmitigated disaster in providing a better and more collaborative working environment., and unfortunately, hot-desking often requires larger open spaces that can be more flexibly used. Lots of rooms lead to situations where a team can end up split between rooms rather than sitting together, whereas open plan means they can cluster in a shared space.
So while it’s likely that the average organisation may need less floor space than they did pre-Covid, they are going to need better floorspace. More flexible, better IT infrastructure, plenty of meeting rooms for video calls with remote colleagues.
Modern city office developments are essentially a form of creative destruction – demolishing older out of date designs and replacing them with the latest design, and 50-60 years later, repeat again as society changes.
So that’s why we are seeing new offices being planned, even in the middle of the pandemic – it’s not idiot developers building empty boxes that no one will use, but clever developers providing the space that people are already asking for.
The idiot is the building owner stuck with old offices suitable for Edwardian working, lots of small rooms and corridors. Certainly not much use for modern working, and probably not at all disabled friendly.
What is likely to see a big change though are in the support services for office work.
Much has been written recently about the need to get people back into offices, less for the employer’s benefit than for the sandwich vendors benefit. All those branches of Pret, Greggs, and the like struggling to sell their prepacked sarnies to a handful of office workers. Lots of lower-paid shop workers being made redundant while the higher-paid office workers tap away on keyboards at home.
What is likely to happen, over time, is less a decline in sales, than a rebalancing of where sales occur. Fewer branches in the heart of the CBD and more opening up in the suburbs.
Suburban shopping parades which have been decimated by the rise of supermarkets could see a resurgence as the work from homers seek suitably equipped coffee shops to have a break in, a local Greggs to save making lunch at home, and the range of services they are used to having on tap in the city.
New opportunities for business will emerge – anyone fancy an ice-cream van driving around offering a print-on-demand service for that long document you need to read? The friendly jingle of the Printer Van music heard down the street and people scurry out like excited children clutching USB sticks and returning home with sheets of paper covered in spreadsheets.
The future of office work is difficult to predict, especially at the moment.
However, despite a vocal minority claiming we’re living a new age of working from home and that cities will soon be urban wastelands, the reality is that while big changes are afoot, they are not as dramatic as may be suggested.
We’re still going to be working in offices, some of the time, and we’re still going to be commuting to offices, some of the time.
The office will look different, but it’ll still be there, and we’ll still be complaining about the broken printer to the poor sod who ended up sitting next to it and is therefore expected to be an expert on fixing printers.