No going back to the office: Death of kings of industrial age knowledge work being hastened by pandemic

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.

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