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Future of Work 2020

COVID-19 may, eventually, strengthen the office

Richard Kauntze

Chief Executive of the British Council for Offices

The COVID-19 pandemic has created fundamental questions about the longevity of the office. What will the future workplace will look like? Will the office survive at all?

When confronted with a naysayer, I am inclined to remind them this is not the first time the office sector has come into question – nor I imagine, will it be the last.

Since the nineties, digital technology has changed how we work. Each new development – the laptop, the internet, the smartphone – has led to claims that the office was about to die, that we would all work from home thanks to tech. These predictions were, of course, wrong.

The office has thrived, and the UK has led the way. In the past two decades, the UK has built some of the world’s most iconic workspaces – The Shard, Bloomberg’s Cannon Street HQ, the Blue Leanie, the list goes on.

Why, when we could have worked remotely years ago, has the office remained so popular? The reasons are many and varied.

Offices create networks of support

Our work is so much more than the tasks we complete between nine and five: it’s about people. The physical office allows us to build relationships and create genuine networks of support.

There is value in the conversations over the coffee machine and the shared complaints by the printer. Our interactions with each other, no matter how fleeting, have a tangible impact on our attitude to work; they energise us, and they help us form new ideas and think differently.

The physical office allows us to build relationships and create genuine networks of support.

The office is also where we work best. The modern office is designed to aid our work. Its layout enables groups to collaborate effectively, while also giving room to those who need solidarity and focus.

Its environment, from the lighting to the temperature, is designed to help us focus and be productive. At home, we are faced with countless frustrations and distractions that act as barriers to our work.

Of course, the pandemic also provides us with a period to reflect, take stock of where we are, and where we can improve.

The office of the future

Most obviously, COVID-19 will change workplaces as they look to mitigate virus transmission. In the immediate term, this will mean screens for receptionists and touchless toilets.

Further ahead, it could mean new technologies and designs that promote airflow and create environments that are hostile to viruses.

Less directly, COVID-19 will provide greater ‘competition’ to the workplace. Many firms will now feel confident in their ability to have staff working remotely. They may see this as an alternative to the office.

So, our industry will have to work even harder to show the value of the office. Offices will have to be designed to even higher standards, and confront some of the great challenges of tomorrow, particularly climate change.

The office will change, but it won’t die. We are social beings and we work best in the office, a truth that has been proved time and time again.

Most importantly, our appreciation for them will likely increase after weeks stuck at home, trying our best to battle slow wi-fi and bored children.

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