Like other countries across Europe, the hollowing out of once vibrant villages and small towns has contributed to wider social divisions, and scholars and public policy experts have warned that the split could become a major source of tension in Western democracies. Ireland’s proposal, “Our Rural Future,” is one of the most ambitious efforts announced in Europe to address the issue, prompted by the changes brought about by the pandemic. Among other things, it proposes legislation that would give employees the right to request to work from home, the establishment of a network of 400 remote-working hubs, and funding for better internet connectivity nationally.
A year after the coronavirus sparked an extraordinary exodus of workers from office buildings, what had seemed like a short-term inconvenience is now clearly becoming a permanent and tectonic shift in how and where people work. Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families. Beyond New York, some of the country’s largest cities have yet to see a substantial return of employees, even where there have been less stringent government-imposed lockdowns, and some companies have announced that they are not going to have all workers come back all the time.
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“We believe that we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time,” said Alexander Westerdahl, the vice president of human resources at Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming music giant that has 6,500 employees worldwide.
Work, too, has been transformed. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people around the world had to figure out how to get things done without going into the office. It turns out that for many white-collar jobs, this is not just possible; it comes with a variety of upsides. Commutes, to take one example, are unhealthy—they waste time and potentially increase our sedentary time, which is associated with many adverse health outcomes, and perhaps worst of all, driving is among the most dangerous activities we undertake each day. The competition to try to avoid long commutes distorts property values and can worsen inequality, as those with money pay extra to live near centers of work, while other residents can no longer afford to live there.
Pandemic social distancing restrictions served as an organizational change intervention, forcing knowledge industry organizations to reassess their cultures and beliefs about how work gets done. Pandemic restrictions virtually overnight switched off the gravity that pulls knowledge workers into a centralized, commute-in office workspace. As those restrictions are lifted amid mass immunization campaigns, knowledge organizations continue to confront these fundamental questions.
For most knowledge organizations, their cultures are strongly rooted in the belief work is being definitively performed when people are present in the office, reinforced by social connections made there and functions such as group lunches and celebrations. The organizational hierarchy is visually represented and reinforced in the office layout, with managers assigned corner and window offices and the rank and file in cubicles on the inside of the floor. A knowledge worker’s manager is clearly identified on the organizational chart. Clocks on the wall define when work is expected to be done.
A decade before the pandemic, author Dave Rolston in his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work predicted the death of these anchors that traditionally defined the boundaries of knowledge work in the Industrial Age: 1) One centralized workplace; 2) A single manager; 3) Performing a single defined job and pay grade; 4) At the same time each week.
The pandemic hastened their death requiring organizations to flex or abandon them. The elimination of the centralized office workplace and the erosion of the 8-5, Monday through Friday work time diminished the first and last of the kings, bookended by the daily commute. After more than year of foregoing commuting, knowledge workers have realized the enormous personal time burden it imposes, taking time away family, community, and health promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, exercise and home cooked versus takeout and restaurant meals. Not to mention clothing and transportation costs.
This realization within knowledge organization has major implications for where knowledge workers will live in the coming decades and for traditional urban planning predicted on centralized settlement and development patterns forming sprawling metro areas requiring ever longer commutes.
Post-Covid for example, a Brooklyn or Queens resident who previously commuted to Manhattan may opt to work several days a week in a shared space within a 10-minute walk from home. Some large employers are already experimenting with satellite offices in the suburbs of cities in which they already have a downtown headquarters. The main office will remain important for most companies, but fewer employees will be expected to be there all day, every day…Offices will need spaces for specific tasks like focused work, team brainstorming, client presentations and employee training. And they will need to be more focused on individuals, even if these people work for a large company.
These predictions are spot on. In the coming years, knowledge work will be done in a variety of settings instead of a centralized, commute in office — a trend that began to pick up steam in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working from home (WFH) that got a giant boost due to pandemic public health measures to tamp down indoor gathering and support social distancing will continue. It will likely be most prominent in less densely developed exurban and rural areas where walking or cycling to a shared neighborhood office space is less practical. Homes in these areas with dedicated office space and served by fiber-delivered advanced telecommunications services will be in demand.
In more densely developed urban and suburban neighborhoods, shared office spaces within reasonable walking and cycling distance should prove popular once vaccines have developed herd immunity against SARS-CoV-2, particularly among households lacking dedicated office space or whose makeups aren’t ideal for WFH.
Traditional office spaces will remain relevant, but repurposed from regular daily workplaces to support the group activities that Dror Poleg lists in his article. These workspaces can be equipped with smart presentation rooms that can’t easily be emulated for interactive large group activities — at least not yet — with online real time platforms like Zoom. For smaller organizations with smaller office space footprints, conference facilities can support these functions. Finally, these co-located activities don’t have to occur on a set basis but only when the need presents such as kicking off a strategy or project or working through a challenge that requires a focused, group effort.
Transitioning to a truly remote workforce requires a top-to-bottom rethink of how business is conducted on an everyday basis, with an emphasis on asynchronous communications. This is the single most difficult thing companies face when making the transition from a “meetings-first culture to a writing culture,” Hansson said. “Most newbie remote companies thought remote just meant all the same meetings, but over Zoom,” he said. “That led to even more misery than meetings generally do. You have to make the transition to an asynchronous writing culture to do well as a remote company.”
As knowledge workers and their organizations have de-emphasized the role of the centralized, commute in office (CCO) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of too many online meetings has cropped up under the moniker of “Zoom fatigue.” Essentially, it’s creating an electronic office where working is defined by real time presence. As David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) explains, there is more to shifting from a CCO-based organization to a virtual one than where the work gets done and communication about it occurs.
The other factor in going virtual involves not just becoming more location agnostic. It’s also becoming more independent of when those activities are performed. Not everyone needs to be working and communicating at the same time, i.e. 8-5, Monday through Friday as established in the 20th century Industrial Age economy. As Hansson notes, that requires moving away from real time spoken communication in meetings to written communication.
And that’s a good thing. Writing forces people to more carefully think through their thoughts and ideas and what it is they want to communicate. It also provides a written record of challenges and progress on a given project. As more knowledge organizations become virtual, this is an important cultural step in the transition. And it has broader social and environmental benefit, according to Hannson:
Aside from operational efficiencies, remote working also benefits the environment, something that became abundantly clear early in the global lockdown. NASA satellite images revealed an initial decline in pollution in China, but as the country gradually resumed normal operations, pollution levels increased accordingly. Much of this change can be attributed to traffic, and Hansson feels remote work is one way to help the planet while improving people’s mental health.
“I’m less interested in how we might benefit [from a greater societal push to remote work] as a company, and more interested in how the world might benefit as a whole,” Hansson said. “More remote means less commuting. And for a large group of people, a better, less stressful life. That’s a massive step forward for the planet and its inhabitants.”
Prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper sees significant but diminishing value in face-to-face work, and believes that as technology improves, more work will go remote. He and many others foresee a hybrid future for the Valley in which the type of work, type of company, and workers’ personal preferences determine who’s in the office — or even the Bay Area — and who isn’t.In-person meetings might take place weekly, monthly or quarterly, in shared workspaces or attractive destinations. “You basically offset those costs by rather than spending it on rent you’re spending it on travel expenses for that quarterly meeting, which ultimately will be a lot cheaper than maintaining an office and forcing yourself to hire people who are local.”
Lifestyle changes take about four to six months to become established habits. For organizations, the time scale is considerably longer. And years for society as a whole. The principle is new habits and ways of doing things must be repeated over sufficiently long durations in order to become firmly rooted. Once they have, a break with the past has been achieved and change has occurred.
The social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rapid virtualization of knowledge work as working in crowded cube farms and centralized commuter office (CCO) spaces was not conducive to controlling the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The course of the pandemic in much of the industrialized world will likely play out over roughly an 18-month-long timespan.
That’s long enough for organizations to grow accustomed to working virtually, especially since some were already doing so well before the pandemic’s public health restrictions hit in spring 2020. Knowledge work has been undergoing a fundamental shift for years, disintermediated by information and communications technology (ICT) that no longer requires a set time and place for performing it.
In his 2013 book Four Dead Kings at Work, author Dave Rolston identified four rulers of knowledge work in the industrial age: set job duties performed under a single manager at one place (the office) and the same time (8-5, Monday-Friday). The pandemic has hastened the death of at least two of those monarchs: time and place. By the time it ends around the middle of 2021, it’s likely few knowledge organizations will use their office real estate as they did before the pandemic. Working virtually without co-locating staff in office space during set business hours will have become an ingrained habit by forced adjustment. There will be no going back to the daily commute to the office habit. Knowledge organizations will look to downsize their office real estate footprint and more rationally utilize it.
For many, elements of existing office space offer smart conference rooms to better enable complex presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing. But sprawling square footage of offices and cubicles will no longer be needed. The space could end up being converted to residential living space placed on the housing market or to house staff and guests attending those presentations, deep discussions, brainstorming and strategizing sessions when spread over multiple days. Other possibilities include recreational and fitness facilities, theaters and food services.
Knowledge workers can do without the daily commutes or the office furniture, observed Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab, at the CNBC Workforce Executive Council virtual event. But as social beings in an organization, they require camaraderie, he adds. That can be had virtually as well as face to face in other brick and mortar settings such as eateries and conference centers, both of which have been severely adversely impacted by public health restrictions and will be looking for a post-pandemic bounce. Organizations and work teams can convene in them on a less than daily or weekly basis and carry less office space costs on their books.
Michael Appel, a Google spokesman, said offices will remain a core part of the company, and major expansions in San Jose and Mountain View are moving forward. The company is seeking a flexible work model that combines in-person collaboration and remote work, he said. Last month, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, said a hybrid model would best serve employees. Working from home sometimes will mitigate some downsides of always being in an office, such as the two-hour commute between San Francisco and Mountain View common during pre-pandemic rush hours, he said.
The Boeing senior leader said that’s still a very large presence — and that looking to the future, the new remote work options will change how we think of a corporation’s “presence.”“In what is looking like the new norm, we’ll have fewer people coming into the office,” he said. “We may have a smaller footprint, but the people aren’t going anywhere. The people will still be here in Washington state, some of them working out of their homes.”