One of the continuing dangers to society in the digital age is that of binary thinking. Things, ideas, events and people are labeled as either true or false, this or that, positive or negative, no in-between. One of the most pervasive such attitudes, other than in politics, has to do with offices. The common assumption is that offices have been the way they are today “forever”, never mind that they are largely industrial revolution artifacts. Millions of workers have “always” been commuting to their offices every day. Now here comes Covid-19 and pervasive lockdowns; suddenly we are facing the prospect of no operational offices at all, at least until Covid-19 has been extinguished or at least suppressed. Then all will be back to “normal,” right?
But that is not the way things will turn out. As I hinted last time we won’t all go back to offices in the Covid-altered future. Here’s why.
Moving from the old days
In the last century offices were the centers of production by information workers. Just as factories were the centers of production by manufacturing workers. Manufacturing workers needed to commute because they worked with big, expensive and otherwise immovable equipment. Information workers needed to commute to offices because they worked with information processing machines that were big and/or expensive. They also used offices as places to exchange knowledge, discuss issues, form decisions and organize work, among other tasks. There didn’t seem be any other ways to get things done until personal computers came along.
In this century many of those office tasks, including much manufacturing, can be performed almost anywhere, thanks to relatively inexpensive, sophisticated computers and the internet. In fact, meetings convened for exchanging information are now often conducted through videoconferencing. Data needed for executing tasks can be accessed via company or government computers or from the world wide web. The internet is available from almost anywhere. So, if this is the case, why must everyone commute from their homes to their downtown offices in order to do useful work? The answer is they don’t have to commute, not every day. Roughly half the workforce might telecommute instead.
To the new days
The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly forced the issue: driving millions of people to abandon their offices and work from home. Some forecasters are saying that this means the end of the traditional office. What is more likely to happen is that fewer central offices will exist, and they will be redesigned to serve new functions and purposes. Coincidentally, my group made such a forecast in 1973, predicting a trend toward development of satellite or regional offices sited close to where the workers live.
Wait! This can’t be done all at once
The reason for keeping some forms of offices is that contemporary technology still cannot completely replace the human need for face-to-face contact. Humans are a communal species. They need some face-to-face contact for inspiration, development of trust and confidence, guidance and, possibly, that mythical serendipity of the ah ha! conversation in the hallways. We still need occasional face time, even at distances of two meters. Our surveys of telecommuters show that most are part-timers, with work split between home and some sort of office-like gathering place.
But remember: office buildings are a huge investment. It is far cheaper to repurpose them than to tear them down. Consequently, offices currently arranged largely as sets of individual or open plan workspaces need to be redesigned. The focus of the future office should be on intragroup communication: meetings, formal or otherwise. Their spaces need be reallocated correspondingly: more meeting rooms, fewer cubicles. The detailed, solo work can be done anywhere, such as at home; for that, traditional office space isn’t needed.
Office buildings also can be converted into multi-use facilities comprising residences, retail and meeting spaces, entertainment and exercise spaces and restaurants. If coronavirus persists or periodically blooms then large buildings should also contain well-equipped and staffed hospital spaces. As this transformation takes place cities will evolve into more homogeneous mixes of interconnected neighborhoods in which people can work and play independently of the location of their bosses.
But it must happen
Like the coronavirus, change cannot be ignored. Telecommuting on a national scale has begun. It will continue for months. There are still technical problems both in ease of use and security. In the short term, much effort will go to upgrading the information infrastructure so that it is both more transparent and more secure. Then, very quickly, organizations will realize that telecommuting works well and that their investment in little-used office spaces must diminish. Then restructuring the physical environment will begin in earnest. Although buildings are much harder than viruses to mutate, that mutation process must begin now.