Will the Office Come Back, Like It Was?


No, we’re not talking about the return of the popular American sitcom; our worries are centred around the humble workplace, post-Covid. With more and more businesses planning to continue promoting the work from home culture, ‘the office’ seems to be facing an existential crisis. Here’s more. 

“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” asks Pam Beesly in Season 9 “Finale” of the popular American mockumentary The Office. Looks like the line was tailor-made for the Covid-19 era. The pandemic made the extraordinary look pretty ordinary. For instance, superstar actors who never rested for a full day in their whole career stayed home for months, idling away time.

That said, Covid-19 also made the ordinary look so extraordinary. A great example of this realisation was what happened to the idea of ‘office’ or the workplace as we have known it. ‘Work-from-home’ took over the reins and businesses started a swift romance with the WfH, rolling out rules and routines to power the work from home culture. 

At one point in the over one-year-long history of Covid-19, the share of people working from home had hit more than 90 per cent. Even today, a significant chunk of the global workforce, especially in the service and non-manufacturing sectors continue to work from home. Interestingly, most people are hesitant about going back to their physical offices for fear of contracting the coronavirus. Just recently, a survey conducted by Atlassian Corporation among office-goers in India suggests that 83 per cent of employees are still wary about going back to the office, especially without a vaccine.

Vaccinating everyone is a long-haul affair. India, a land of 1.4 billion people, has vaccinated only 63 million so far and it would take many more months or years till the whole country is properly vaccinated. For sure, companies cannot afford to wait that long to resume work in fullscale. Already, most companies have rolled out their post-Covid work rules, in sync with the new work(place) realities, and all signs point towards a bleak future for the very idea of the traditional office. 

Long live the office

For centuries now, the office has been an integral part of humanity and we are so used to the tyranny of routine that came along with the office. The system of humanity, which philosophers such as Aristotle, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer called a social organism, is indebted to the office a lot for its existence and evolution, especially in modern history. A room populated with desks, shelves and chairs has changed the way people work in myriad ways so much so that when its existence is questioned by the new realities brought in by a pandemic, the very basics of humanity are questioned. 

Does that mean the office is read? Long live office? Well, not yet. Work-from-home is still not a giant-killer. In fact, WfH has been thriving for centuries now, as reflected in the WfH work cultures of banking dynasties such as Rothschilds and Barings in the 19th century, which operated out of their posh residences. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire was run from a giant Chicago apartment. There are several such famous examples, still, WfH didn’t make it to the mainstream till Covid-19 struck the world in late 2019, prompting businesses to down shutters due to the lockdowns and the restrictions that ensued.  

Covid-19 changed the game for offices like never before. The spurt in remote working soon posed serious questions surrounding the future of the office, challenging the very raison d’être of the traditional workplace, especially in the service industry. The conventional idea that the office is an essential ingredient to the enhancement of productivity and the absence of which can cause serious damage to output quality has taken a sudden beating. 

Office’s existential crisis

The companies that were vying with each other for grabbing prime office locations to install swanky workspaces have been in for a shock. By April 2020, estimates suggested that nearly 62 per cent of all the working Americans had embraced WfH, in comparison with 25 per cent in, say, 2017-18. The advancement of technologies now makes remote working a hassle-free affair and collaboration no longer needs the blessings of the physical office. 

Videoconferencing, digital collaboration platforms, etc. are now available even in remote villages of countries such as India where city-returned young professionals are finding new meaning to their lives and career. Taking a cue from this new environment, companies such as Google and Facebook have asked their employees to embrace WfH. The companies now say they will allow their staff to work from home until the middle of next year.

To be fair, the pandemic has taught these companies that a significant amount of work can be done out of residences and, more interestingly, these companies have found out that if done properly, WfH can make work more productive as employees love the freedom and flexibility that come with such offers. The core elements of ‘colleagues, collaboration and culture’ continue to be valued, as experts such as John Moran, has pointed out, but many others say the over-digitisation of life will have far-reaching impacts on work as well, transforming the core values into more modern morphed versions. Deloitte’s yearly Readiness Report says Covid has boosted remote working permanently. The consultancy says a third of workers will work from home even after Covid restrictions end.

So, what’s the road ahead for the office?

Given that there is consensus now among business experts, architects and even policymakers that the culture of office-based work is taking a historic turn for the ‘worse’, more and more buildings will go vacant and the imminent decline of the office will reshare the urban geography in unimaginable ways. Our cities will look different in the new environment. Transport systems, business gatherings, etc., which had a close relationship with the office, will change colour and character.  

Another important worry could be how the decline of the office will fundamentally alter the way we work and how work is defined. That’s something trade unions would want to avoid. Many unions have already raised concerns around the way workers’ privacy has been breached during WfH and how businesses have been using surveillance tools to ensure their workers are performing better during WfH. 

So, what does it mean for the good ol’ office? In short, it means it is bound to change. And with that will change the ideas surrounding work and work-life balance. Creating policies, infra designs, staff etiquettes and collective bargaining principles for this new normal would be interesting as well as intimidating. As they say, watch this space! 

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