Many are seeing the benefits of being away from the office right now as COVID-19 takes its toll. The daily commute is mere seconds, there’s better coffee on offer, not to mention an improved work/life balance. But let’s not underestimate the crucial social function of the workplace.
It’s no surprise that a 2017 study found that physical contact with other humans helps our social development and even reduces pain. And if we extrapolate that into a workplace scenario, being in the same room as other people undoubtedly makes the ideas happen, whether that’s building something physical in a workshop or brainstorming concepts together. Video meetings can facilitate some types of decision making and interactions but there’s the nuance of eye contact, facial expression and letting people have their say that sometimes gets lost among the loudest-voice-wins online grid.
Social contact in the physical office also helps reduce silo working where the virtual world can’t really compete. Think of those carefully designed places for ‘chance encounters’ in office interiors: that staircase, corridor or even tea point where you might see a senior colleague whose schedule is always full, that person whose sign off is elusive or just a chat with someone in another department whose role you never fully understood, but which is vital to what you do. No carefully coordinated Teams meeting is going to replace those informal interactions.
There’s been much extolling of the new-found benefits of homeworking particularly by Baby Boomers and Generation X. They have undoubtedly benefited from a property market and economic circumstance that has now enabled them to have their own bit of green space at home, whether that’s a terrace, balcony or garden. Or even that very big house in the country by now. But what about millennials aka Generation Rent? In London and other cities where career opportunities often lie, that generation has sacrificed personal space at home as a way of affording to climb the ladder and chase their professional dreams. That’s why millennials spend so much time at work even when they’ve knocked off for the day.
The office has become a place where they can host their social lives. And as upscale domestic and workplace interior styles have melded, it’s no surprise millennials want to hang out on their smart new office roof terrace with stunning views, their town hall meeting space with stylish contemporary furniture or even down the subsided, high-spec gym after work. Especially when the alternative is a poky bedroom in Zone 6, sometimes without a living room at all and often sharing with people they wouldn’t otherwise. And those that have been sold the co-living dream where a small personal living space is compensated for by a large communal areas must be finding the lack of escape to the workplace particularly isolating.
It’s really too early to be predicting the wholesale future of the office but that hasn’t stopped many from trying. Suggested modifications that will make people feel safe as well as happy and productive at work put forward so far have ranged from entry scanners to take people’s temperature to staggered office opening hours to enhanced air quality.
Post COVID-19, office workers may be unwilling to accept long hours culture or the daily rush-hour grind in the same way they used to. It’s unlikely we’ll see a return to packed canteens, standing-room only meetings and no one’s going to be in a rush to squeeze into a packed lift when we do return to the office. But, while you can do some elements of your job from anywhere, the physical workspace will continue to fulfil a vital role as a social hub.