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The demise of the office? Don’t be too sure

 

Jim Anderson, Solutions Architect at O2, considers how offices will need to adapt to accommodate the way businesses operate in future.

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how 2020 will hasten the permanent demise of the office. But what evidence is there for that? I believe that the office still has an essential role to play, although businesses will need to adapt in order to accommodate and benefit from it.

I accept that with so much office space currently underused, and with large numbers of remote employees able to work effectively, business leaders have called into question the need for large office estates. But even though we’re unlikely to see a large scale return to the office in the very near future, it doesn’t mean that we won’t need them again.

Here are five ways I believe we must adapt the way we work before the role of the office becomes clear:

1. We need to change our workplace mindset

In the past I’ve worked with companies for whom remote working was a privilege that must be earned (and ideally, discouraged). Their senior leaders believed that the best way to get maximum value from their employees was to insist that they always work in the office.

The events of 2020 have demonstrated that this view is outdated. Technology has stood up to the challenge, and enabled employees in a broad range of roles to work effectively from home. Businesses may need a physical office for certain roles, but it’s likely they won’t need to accommodate every employee in future.

2. We must respect the employee’s needs

Remote working isn’t for everyone. Sure, I’ve spoken with people who have thrived working from home and claimed to be more productive than before. But I’ve come across just as many that haven’t fared so well. They miss the physical human contact, camaraderie and office banter. They have felt anxious about their job security and their mental health has suffered as a result.

The office of the future must be able to accommodate both types of employee. How? Firstly, by providing a safe working environment for those whose roles require it, as well as for employees who thrive with human contact. Secondly, by ensuring that remote workers feel included, and are able to collaborate and communicate with colleagues effectively.

3. We must adapt HR policies

In an office environment, it’s straightforward to stipulate working policies regarding working hours or dress code, for example. At home, however, where and when does the working day begin or end? How will productivity be measured? Employers might take the view that if an employee has been provided with the technology to communicate and collaborate at home, then they are free to be contacted at any time. It will take talented HR departments to establish policies that draw a clear distinction between work and home.

4. We need to foster creativity

Moments of creativity rarely happen in isolation. An off-the-cuff comment from a colleague or client can be all that’s needed to spark an idea, or identify a better way of doing something. As far back as 2009, Google completed a study that showed employees sharing a work area worked more effectively than those working remotely. Right now, sharing a working area is not as simple as it was, and in some cases isn’t possible at all. In these cases, technology should be used to fill that gap, ensuring that people are still able to share a working space effectively.

5. We must continue to embrace the technology

It seems odd to think that only a few months ago, I drove hundreds of miles each month to attend meetings with colleagues and clients. Even if every restriction was lifted right now, I am not sure I would choose to go back.

Meetings are just one example of how technology has been able to keep us working effectively this year – and the office of the future may simply not need boardrooms capable of hosting regular, large team meetings.

 

It’s important to remember that every business is different, and no single outcome will suit them all. For some, a physical office premises is essential, and likely always will be. For others, 2020 has provided the opportunity to at least question whether they need a physical presence at all. You may have seen the KPMG survey from August 2020, which found that 68% of CEOs plan to downsize their office space as a result of the pandemic. But the research also found evidence of businesses embracing the need for changing working practices. Bill Thomas, KPMG Chief Executive, concluded that:

“Maybe some kind of hybrid finds its way into the new everyday reality”

The investment that businesses have had to make in technology this year – whether in laptops, tablets, mobile devices or software – makes possible the hybrid that KPMG’s research refers to. It’s just one example of how businesses will need to change to meet the new working expectations of their workforce.

So, are we really about to witness the demise of the office? My answer is no, although its role will change, and businesses must be ready to adapt to it.

Are you considering a hybrid way of working? I’d love to talk to you. O2 are specialists in communication and collaboration technology, and many of our teams have been working remotely for many years already. You can connect with me via LinkedIn.

Share your opinions on the role of the office using the hashtag #O2Opinions.

 



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