The post-Covid office: Social club or the death of open plan?
As our reasons for working outside the home shift, employers are reimagining what the post-pandemic office will look like
Once upon a time, you needed a really good reason to work from home. Now, we need a much better one to work from the office.
As Coronavirus cases rise, Boris Johnson is once again encouraging office workers not to travel to company headquarters. Instead, he wants us to retreat to that home office, nook beneath the stairs or quiet bedroom corner that served us well during lockdown. Indeed, a McKinsey report claims 80% of people enjoy working from home and 41% believe they are more productive outside the office.
Such a large chunk of time away from offices has changed our perception of them. With today’s tech, nobody needs to be at a designated desk to complete daily tasks. But do we want to be?
In mid September, 64% of Britons were travelling into work, according to the Office for National Statistics, and an employee survey at Google showed that 62% of its staff has expressed an interest in returning to the office part time.
“Most people work to earn money, but we also work because we enjoy coming together to create ideas and solve problems,” said Amanda Stanaway, principal architect of architectural and consulting practice Woods Bagot, in an interview with the BBC. “I think that’s what we’ve been missing. That sense of connection is fundamental to the human race.”
As a result, office spaces could become much more centred on meetings and team collaboration than traditional dedicated desk space. Offices should become “club like,” according to Woods Bagot, which has released suggested layouts that favour couches over banks of desks as part of its Working from Home, Working from Work project.
With travel to the office no longer essential – and cost-effective, time-saving working from home tantalisingly appealing – extra persuasion is needed to encourage workers to resume the commute. One suggestion is to make offices more stylish, perhaps mimicking co-working spaces like WeWork that have been successfully tempting home workers back to office settings long before the pandemic.
However, one common design thread of co-working spaces could be off the menu: open-plan offices. “The whole office industry is kind of going into reverse, because it was all about high density and open plan,” Jeremy Myerson, founder of the WORKTECH Academy, told Wired. “It was about the ‘social staircase’ and the ‘collision coefficient’, deliberately engineering how often people bumped into each other. Well, we’re not allowed to bump anymore. So what’s the office actually for?”
A topical question. While water cooler moments are on the out, the age of the office is not over, believe analysts at Morgan Lovell. “The office is the physical heart and soul of a business representing its cultural aspirations,” they write in a report titled The Office of The Future. “Without this palpable hallmark, you have at best a floating, fragmented collection of individuals loosely connected by a company name.”