The COVID pandemic shines a harsh spotlight onto the future role of the office. As millions of people around the world are told to work from home, many commentators said this could signal the end of working in offices altogether. This article asks the question, what will an office look like in 5 years?
It’s worth highlighting several powerful trends already shaping change within offices, which the pandemic has now accelerated. These are driven by two underlying factors:
- Technology. Increasingly, people use portable laptops and mobiles for their work. These in turn push the use of Apps, enabling people to work from anywhere. These apps include communications, project management, To-Do lists, accounting, and shared files.
- Video. The quality of online video has been steadily increasing for a number of years. As people get faster broadband, allied with faster computers, the quality of streaming video, such as Netflix, YouTube, and iPlayer, is considered clear and sharp. As a result, online conference calls, which were once hit and miss quality-wise, can now be used for meetings, webinars, and company announcements.
The pandemic placed a huge question mark over our current technology. And for the most part, technology has held up! Meaning that, to the surprise of many people, working from home is now considered perfectly viable. Notwithstanding the questions that remote working poses about social interaction, creativity, and isolation, the actual technology people use has mostly been up to the task of enabling people to work from home.
This is significant when considering what an office will look like in the future. The trends already at play combined with the pandemic forced companies to confront the ramifications when previously they may have brushed them off or delayed changing their way of operating.
When considering the many ways an office will change I find it’s helpful to break down the discussion into 4 areas.
The office has 4 primary roles:
- Physical – providing a place to work, meet and socialize.
- Technological – the office typically has equipment and resources we don’t have at home.
- Shared Purpose – a place where people work towards a common goal.
- Emotional – Providing people with a company culture that fosters wellbeing, engagement and motivation.
The Physical Office
Office design is constantly changing. As more people work remotely, offices will become social hubs for meetings and social interactions. For instance, Cisco recently halved the amount of office space they manage but doubled the amount of meeting space within their offices.
Research has shown many people are more creative when walking outside. ‘Walkshop’ areas, emulating the outside with foliage and pathways, will become popular. In a similar way, many offices will try to mimic the outside with more plants, water, and lighting. Technology such as AR and VR will become commonplace in meeting rooms, enabling people to visualize ideas or even have a meeting in a completely new environment. A meeting on the moon or the bottom of the ocean will provide a fresh perspective!
There will be more recognition of the differing requirements of a broader workforce. For instance, working from home may result in more introverted people being recruited. When visiting the office they will want quiet or even silent rooms. People can use them as creative spaces but also to rest or have a nap.
As a result of remote working companies can expect head offices to reduce in size. However, in their place, we will see more regional hubs. These co-working spaces will enable people living in a vicinity to drop-in for either a meeting or a chance to work in a different environment. Different companies may see value in sharing these office spaces so people mix with others, further encouraging ideas and new innovations.
The Technological Office
Recently, online learning has witnessed an explosion in growth. This is only partly due to lockdown. People regard learning as a lifelong pursuit due to both the easy availability of online courses combined with the opportunities that education & new skills bring. Companies will respond to this by providing employees with accessible resources to promote learning. Digital assistants will help people learn their own processes and suggest coaching or improvements. Mentors, already becoming more popular among young workers, will be assigned to guide individuals. Meeting rooms and secluded areas will provide space to talk in confidence.
Robotics, machine learning, and AI will undoubtedly play a significant role in future offices. However, they will take second place to human imagination, emotional intelligence, and creativity. A Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum (2020) predicts 97 million jobs will be created in these areas by 2025. But how do companies prepare for a future where so many jobs don’t even exist yet? The answer is by implementing a culture of constant training. Successful companies will focus on providing their workforce with premium human experiences, while promoting thinking, creating, and problem-solving.
The Shared Purpose Offices
A new generation of workers refuses to work simply for money. They want meaning and a purpose behind what they do. Driven by changes in lifestyle and society they want to work for companies who adopt the same moral values as they do. This means companies living up to promises and being seen to lead on causes in the environment and society. Working with a shared purpose will be more rewarding than higher pay. However, people will be more loyal as a result.
Since individuals will work remotely, offices of the future will be places where the company’s culture is defined. Leaders must ensure distributed teams are engaged and driven towards a common goal, despite meeting them online or perhaps not at all in the same physical location.
As jobs become automated, new jobs will appear that help the organization share common goals, culture, and meaning. Titles could include “Cultural Translator”, “Diversity Officer”, “Creativity Coach” and “Purpose Agent”. With communication moving towards an asynchronous model, specialists will be required who help coordinate teams with technology and skills training.
The Emotional Office
Many of us invest a large amount of emotion into our work. We feel pride when a job goes well. We’re happy to socialize with our colleagues. Perhaps we get angry or upset when something doesn’t go right or we feel a colleague has let us down. However, historically there is an etiquette separating office life from work life. This is gradually being eroded, caused by changes in the way we work and society’s attitudes.
As people work from home they’re finding the lines between work and home life blurring. We’re all familiar with videos of small children or pets appearing unexpectedly on a Zoom call. Perhaps more significantly, colleagues are getting an insight into our home lives, including the pictures on our walls or the ornaments on our shelves.
Furthermore, society is changing. Social media connects millions of people. It’s also a leveller. Anyone in a Western country can now message the leader of their country (although they may not receive a reply!). People who were once inaccessible are now reachable via an email or Tweet. People expect access, transparency, and communication based on mutual trust rather than position. And if they don’t feel they’re being respected, they think nothing of being vocal about their feelings.
These factors mean companies introducing new practices into the office. Expect to see far more personalization. People will have personal office profiles, likely powered by AI and based on data gathered by devices such as wearables and IoT objects. These will manage your environment – how you like your chair height or air temperature for instance – in addition to guiding you on how or where you work best. If you prefer silence then audio “white noise” will mask the office drone going on around you. Desks will self-clean. Colors will change automatically to suit your mood or preferences.
Promoting culture within the office will become paramount. We will see significant changes in demographics, diversity, and inclusion. People will be ‘Celebrated’ and rewarded for achieving goals or for actions that promote the culture. There will be more opportunities for people to talk and engage with their colleagues. Mixing between departments will be actively encouraged. As technology and society shifts, the more the company’s culture will matter.
Expect to see the workforce become more ‘liquid’, that is, people getting hired for projects combined with more contractors and freelancers. People will need stability, especially when their physical workspace is no longer the norm. Organizations will need to work harder to enable community-building and collaboration by providing the right platforms for sharing, interactions, and innovating.
Conclusion: What Will an Office Look Like?
The office of the future will be defined by several factors. Personalization, wellbeing and a focus on culture, autonomy and inclusivity. As work gets separated from both location and time companies face several big challenges. How do they combine this new freedom and technology with the core purpose of the company? How do they balance the demands placed upon them by their workforce? How do they promote company culture when people are not in the same space at the same time? Leaders asking the strategic question, “What will an office look like in 5 years?” must be prepared to change to meet these requirements.
The original version of this article was first published on Future of Work.