Is the traditional office a thing of the past?
Original article Oct 25, 2017. Updated January 2021.
The traditional office: a place where employees congregate Monday through Friday for 40+ hours per week to produce work for a company. Articles used originally in the research for this writing claimed that estimates were that by 2020, more than 40% of the American workforce (60 million people), would be freelancers, contractors, and temporary employees. This is, by the way, NOT necessarily the same thing as a “gig economy“, which has its own risks.
Now that it’s 2021 and we’re into nearly a full year of a global pandemic, how did these estimates hold up?
The traditional work environment was changing even before the pandemic. Companies were moving away from “Cubicle Land” environments or private offices with long, echo-y halls and fluorescent lighting, and into more open office designs.
Open offices – In 2016, Microsoft redesigned part of its campus into “neighbourhoods” – they switched from largely private offices to teams with their own customized, open common room, dedicated focus and meeting rooms.
Other workspaces were pretty radical compared to the old days of Cubicle Land, without necessarily being Microsoft-scale. You’ve probably heard of tech companies whose amazing working spaces included ping pong tables and sleep pods, play areas, adaptable work spaces that could suit an individual’s working method, and flexible working hours.
Activity-based – Another design, originating in the Netherlands, is activity-based, to best suit the type of work being done on a given day. For example, writers all sat together, and for every person there might be three places in a building where that person could sit. Gathering spaces are available for staff to come together as an organization. Check out this case study from Veldhoen Company.
Other open offices based their “neighbourhoods” by client industries – for example, people who serve the food and beverage industry work in the same space, creating a kind of brain trust of people with the same expertise.
Hot desk – Hotdesking or hoteling is another concept, albeit with mixed success. This environment is where people work where they want, without an assigned desk. This is a great concept for equalization, as partners sit in the same desks as everyone else.
What About Productivity?
Regardless of your company’s layout, there does remain an argument for some kind of private office. According to this article, some research shows that worker productivity depends upon the environment they’re in; globally, 39% of workers felt most productive at their own desk (Canada was at 50%). So perhaps the best scenario is a flexible one, with a combination of open plan and private office availability. In my own home office scenario, although I love to work at the kitchen table when everybody’s out and the sun is shining, I do in fact feel more productive in my actual office area.
The rapid rise in co-working, defined as “the use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge,” also started to change the way we work. Co-working was a way to escape the isolation and loneliness of working at home, and offered the possibility of interaction with other people in a public place.
Co-working isn’t just a thing for companies and their new corporate vibes, either. You could reserve a dedicated desk in an office, or hot-desk in a shared office, and you could have them available in a range of settings and for a range of rates. With the flexibility of short-term use and the ability to work with other human bodies nearby, co-working spaces offer an experience that many self-employed folks can’t otherwise have.
Some managers and companies have noticed that their workers have turned out work just as well, if not better, while working from home. Of course, not every job can be done from home. But, for those that can, it seems that some companies recognize that working from home can provide some great benefits to their workers – and maybe to their own bottom line. But for companies looking to design a flexible work practice, the initial motivation can’t be about cost-cutting but rather about a purpose-designed perspective.
Some Impacts of Switching Away From Traditional Office
Even before the pandemic, lockdowns, and shutdowns, there were concerns about the risk to real estate and other considerations if big companies realized they no longer needed to rent or lease large commercial spaces. There are too many impacts to list them all here, but here are a few that would impact the individual worker perhaps the most:
Overhead Costs – Most companies don’t own their office buildings; instead, they might lease from a real estate company or other building owner. If your workers can do just as well working from home, and you don’t have or need a storefront, does your company actually need a commercial space anymore? Downsizing so workers share a smaller workspace on a rotating schedule, or even removing that cost entirely is possible for some companies. Any overhead costs that are theoretically saved could then be passed on to the workers in the form of more compensation, or other benefits – or investing in the virtual meeting technology you’re likely to need.
Commuting Time – Traffic accidents are all too common in the US and Canada. Many of them occur during the commute to and from work. If you’re working (or learning) from home and cutting out the need for that commute, that risk of accident is significantly lower.
The fewer people that are on the road in the mornings and at rush hour, the better. By removing many commuters from the equation, those who have to commute to work should have an easier drive.
Having that time back in your life has its ups and downs, of course – some commuters are thrilled to regain that “book-end” time (at the beginning and end of the day) and fill it with other activities. Others, particularly those who could ride public transit, miss that time they would spend prepping or decompressing, listening to podcasts, or just relaxing down time.
And of course, fewer cars on the road should be great for the environment. Remember the first month or so of the pandemic, when news reports were observing how the environment was changing in response to our human activity changes?
Comfort and Accessibility – For some people, working from home just feels better. They love not having to rush around in the morning, not needing to fight traffic, not needing to meet a specific dress code, and the ability to work from a safe space. Workers with mobility issues can benefit greatly from telecommuting. And there is an argument that working from home could be a great equalizer – provided, of course, that high-speed internet is made available to all, never mind the equipment you need to be able to perform the work itself.
Where is co-working and the traditional office at now?
It can’t be overstated: This has been a truly bizarre year. Due to the pandemic, there has been a huge shift to working (and learning) from home. COVID caused major changes in workplaces, and many people still wonder if they’re ever returning to the office. Now, in January 2021, we are well into the global second wave, and these questions are still just as relevant.
Many offices have reopened. Many continue to be closed, as their staff settle in to the new normal of virtual meetings, a laptop squeezed into a corner of a family area at home, and a neverending supply of tracksuits and yoga pants. Some offices are rotating employee schedules to minimize the risk of exposure, while simultaneously enabling staff to have some regular office access. And unfortunately, some offices won’t even have the luxury of considering reopening. Hopefully, for the companies who do survive and can revamp their strategies, they will be able to keep process design in mind, rather than just cost-based.
A quick online search indicates that there are a few co-working spaces in nearby (for me) Halifax that are still open and available. As I’m not in the market for such spaces right now, I haven’t verified that information, but I hope those spaces are still accessible for my fellow entrepreneurs and contractors/consultants.
My Own Nomadic Experience
Home to shared to back home again… In 2017, I divided my time between my home office, and local coffee shops for meeting spaces. Because my work office is portable – I am very much a nomadic worker – I can literally work from anywhere as long as my mobile hotspot could provide me with a decent internet connection. When my kids were participating in activities in the city, I often spent time working at public libraries, art galleries, and anywhere that offered good natural lighting and reasonable parking.
However, I was beginning to tire of coffee-shop meetings and hustling clients through the family disaster household to my basement office. I was also beginning to consider the benefits of sharing work space with other humans, to gain some social interaction back into my work life – interaction that can be lacking as a self-employed entrepreneur. In late 2018, I began sharing a work space with a small group of other local businesspeople, in an arrangement that worked beautifully for us. But it didn’t last long – thanks, global pandemic.
Now as we enter the second wave, we are very lucky in Nova Scotia to have maintained record low numbers of COVID cases. As the rest of this country endures severe lockdowns, our own lives continue without much visible disruption. With my own children in public school, easy access to high speed internet, and a spouse who continues to work outside the home, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to continue working from my home office much as I have for several years. In fact, the only real difference between my work setup now and my work setup of five years ago is the normalization of virtual meetings. Video conferencing was barely on my radar in the pre-pandemic days, yet now it’s become almost more common than a telephone call.
So what’s next?
It will be very interesting to watch the continuing evolution of workspaces over the next few years as the pandemic moves further away in our rearview mirror. With the proper integration of technology, collaboration and creativity can be off the charts. It’s impossible for construction techniques to keep up with the pace of technology – you can design a building with all the latest techie things, but by the time the build is complete, those latest techie things are not the latest anymore. It will always be critical to design a workspace based on how people will interact with the technology. For the companies and offices that do survive this global pandemic, and whether you and I continue to work from home or not, I hope that underlying thought process will be at the heart of any design or strategy.