When we launched WorkSpace Connect, we assumed we’d be writing a lot about office spaces — and for the first several months, we have. But today, across America, a huge percentage of the beautifully-designed, sensitively-configured offices at the leading edge of collaboration stand empty, as workers stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. All that space planning and open office theorizing and arguing — was it all for nothing? Now that we know how much work can get done by a completely virtualized workforce, will companies decide that office space is an expense they can do without?
The first temptation is to say it won’t happen — that, if anything, those people sheltering in place are learning, on a deep level, how important it is to have face-to-face interaction with other humans. That the whole reason why people are doing Zoom-based happy hours and virtual dance parties is because they’re desperate to retain any semblance of true personal interaction.
A contrary view might start by asking why we got the open office in the first place. Corporations tend to make financially-based decisions first, and then cast about for theories that support what they’ve already decided to do. Open offices are cheaper than offices with walls or cubicles; maybe the next step looks clear: If a company can slash its expenses by eliminating all or almost all of its offices for knowledge workers, it’ll certainly be able to come up with an explanation for why that’s really the best way to do the job anyhow.
Furthermore, we’ve embarked on this experiment in near-universal remote work under the most stressful conditions you can imagine: Many people find themselves suddenly stuck with full-time child care responsibilities on top of their nine-to-five jobs, they’re being told they shouldn’t leave their houses at all, and they’re worried about their health and that of their loved ones. At some point, we have to hope and assume, workers and their families will be able to return to more normal routines, at which point the “working” part of working from home will be less fraught. Maybe it won’t seem so challenging when people aren’t feeling quite as stir crazy and generally freaked out.
Hopefully that day will come sooner rather than later, and we’ll all arrive there with as little human cost as possible. For now, remote work it is, and so that’ll naturally be much more of our focus on here than we might have anticipated. I hope you’ll continue checking us out, and that you’ll share your stories about how remote work is going, what you’ve learned from the situation we’re in, and how we can all help each other get through it with a little more sanity.