A TV series about a struggling lawyer gives us some clues on what the post-Covid office might look like.
The announcement by Twitter that it will no longer oblige employees to ever return to the office has fuelled the “death of the office” narrative that has accompanied the Coronavirus pandemic. This is the theory we will need far less office space as a result of widespread home working during the lockdown. However, less widely reported was a podcast from Goldman Sachs, where the bank’s CFO, Stephen Scherr, said that while 98% of their staff were successfully working from home, he considered that situation to be neither “desirable” nor “sustainable”. Mr Scherr cited the benefits of creativity and interaction as the strengths of the office.
This coincides with growing anecdotal evidence I have encountered that working from home is taking a toll on many. A recurring theme I am encountering from business contacts is people reporting fatigue from a barrage of video conferences. Another common complaint is that hours have got much longer now the work desk is in the home. Others mention a sense of isolation, and missing banter with colleagues.
The “death of the office” narrative depends on projecting a short-term occurrence, the lockdown’s enforced homeworking, far into the future. However, the lesson of history is people who have had something imposed on them with little or no choice often go in the opposite direction when choice returns. After the rationing and austerity of the 1940s, the British embraced rampant consumerism in the 1950s. Let us remember that the recent homeworking regime was similarly imposed on people, so could also be followed by a backlash against it.
Afterall, one could debate whether people, once the pandemic is over, will want to stay in their isolated home offices for much more than one day a fortnight for certain quiet tasks, like report writing. While in theory that means 10% of desks are no longer needed, the only way to realise the space saving is hot desking, and some are openly questioning whether that will be considered acceptable post-Covid, with new attitudes to cleanliness and personal space.
A backlash against hot desking is particularly easy to imagine, as it was never as popular as its enthusiasts liked to maintain. I have even known firms with fixed desks use that as a means to lure staff from competitors who adopted hot desking. This all threatens the drive for densification of recent decades. In the future, a workforce that has come through a pandemic may want more personal space. With salary costs in many firms outweighing property costs by as much as ten to one, there is compelling reason for employers to prioritise staff satisfaction.
So, what might the post-pandemic office look like if we do backlash against homeworking, but are reluctant to step away from the health benefits of distance? On a lockdown Netflix binge, I found some inspiration in the TV series, Better Call Saul, which is set in the legal industry of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the early 2000s.
The many legal and corporate offices visited in the series are a far cry from what we are now used to. Around half of all staff are in their own cellular office, and the other half have cubicles that occupy a generous amount of space. Critically, these offices could not be better set up to provide the social distanced workplace that is about to become the new normal. I would rather work in the offices in Better Call Saulover the next two years than either a pre-pandemic flexible office, or continue the lonely home working.
More not less
So, am I really predicting that going forwards office fit out will hurtle backwards 15 to 20 years in time, with all the partitions and glass box offices returning? No, but sometimes we need an extreme example to help visualise what is realistic. After all, the “death of the office” narrative is itself an unlikely extreme whose value is in provoking discussion on what is actually ahead.
What I would argue is the debate on the future of the office after the virus needs to seriously consider the option that we will spread out, give more space to workstations that are allocated to individuals – my desk, no one else’s germs. Staff will want the social benefits of having colleagues around, and employers will want the creativity that comes from this human interaction. All this brings us back to the office, but adapted to a world now conscious of infection.