Blog | Fact or Fiction: The Physical Office Is Dying
Will COVID-19 end the traditional office? If your workspace has experienced a shakeup related to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably asked yourself something similar. At the very least, your team may be involved in some spirited debate on the merits of working from home vs. working from an office. While things have certainly changed, don’t say goodbye to your desk and office amenities just yet.
Why COVID-19 Does Not Mean the Death of the Centralized Office
If you’ve followed any business news since the COVID-19 pandemic sent most office workers to work from home in March, you’ve probably seen plenty of discussion on the topic. Business analysts, Fortune 500 CEOs and everyone in-between have offered their professional opinions about the state of on-site work. The sudden pivot to remote work threw many people for a loop. It soon went from a temporary solution to a longer-term arrangement. After a few weeks of working out the kinks, many teams fell into their new workflows and prepared to hunker down in their makeshift home offices.
The Exaggerated Prediction
As teams across the country bounced back, they did so surprisingly well. Many companies saw similar productivity levels, and others even saw a jump in productivity. Employees learned to appreciate working from home, either for the improved privacy or the ability to wear sweat pants without anyone knowing.
Seeing their team’s potential to stay on-task while on their couches, some companies began to eye permanent remote work as a way to save money on real estate. And so began a flood of predictions declaring the death of the office. Some tech companies announced plans to make their workforce 100% remote, and journalists urged Americans to prepare for the end of the traditional office.
While the death of the centralized office makes a catchy headline, the obituary has yet to be written. The truth is that people have been predicting the end of the physical commute since the early 1990s. And, even amidst a pandemic, that reality has yet to come to fruition.
Workers spent the spring learning the ropes of their new workflows. By June, 51% reported experiencing burnout and other downsides. Working parents struggle to care for and homeschool their kids while on the clock. Other employees miss their coworkers and feel isolated at home. Meanwhile, people work longer days with little separation between their personal and professional lives.
The prediction of a near-future where companies operate with a 100% remote team without issue is more of a pipe dream. The reality is a lot messier. Through it all, the humble office building will prove a reliable resource for companies and employees alike.
Why Physical Offices Are Still Essential
With safety concerns and all the newly discovered benefits of working from home, will the coronavirus mean the death of the office? Certainly not. The physical office is not dying. It’s crucial to long-term business success.
Face-to-face interactions are at the heart of business. As much as we try, video conferencing won’t replace in-person interactions. Remote discussions don’t build the strong social connections required for effective collaboration. Teams currently using video calls are relying on the personal relationships they’ve already formed with colleagues. It’s not as practical to nurture those bonds when employees have only met each other through a screen.
A few months into the mass migration to remote work, terms like “video conferencing fatigue” entered the national conversation for good reasons. Video conferencing is more mentally taxing than in-person meetings. The mere act of staring at a screen is a strain on the eye. Busy backdrops create a visual distraction, while background noise fragments listeners’ attention. Technical difficulties affect audio quality, create lag and add another layer of stress. Finally, being online invites distraction and ineffective multitasking. As a result, 26% of meeting attendees say they are doing other things during the video call. Another 27% say despite their efforts, they often zone out.
Video conferencing is fine on occasion. However, for industries and teams built on constant conversation, it’s not effective in the long term. Video calls cut out body language, a central tenet of effective communication. Without nonverbal communication, a good chunk of everyone’s message is lost in the digital airwaves. Video conferencing also makes for more rehearsed and less honest conversation. Sincere feedback from partners, clients and fellow employees is much more likely when you can look the other person in the eye.
When all team interactions are virtual, your employees miss out on informal interaction. The benefit of the physical office, and the open office, in particular, is the ability to turn and face your colleagues at any time and chat through an idea in real time. Those interactions are crucial to productivity and quick decision making across a large team. Two heads are better than one, and that kind of creativity isn’t possible on a video call.
Another benefit of the office that’s lost in remote communication is spontaneity. When an office is 100% distributed, all conversations are planned and focused. The idle chitchat at the start of the call can’t replace an impromptu discussion by the water cooler, on lunch breaks or at the end of the workday. Those spontaneous discussions generate new ideas and better decision making.
They’re also the basis for professional mentoring. In an informal chat, young employees can ask questions and receive valuable advice from established coworkers. It’s how corporate culture is transmitted to the next generation and how employees learn to grow in their roles.
Physical Offices vs. Remote Offices
While the home office will never replace the physical office, both have merits. Let’s take a look at remote work vs. office life.
The Advantages of the Physical Office
Besides their essential role in communication, creativity and collaboration, offices offer many crucial advantages. Some of the benefits of the traditional office include:
Employee happiness: Effective communication is critical to corporate success, employee engagement and wellbeing. Humans have a biological need for social interaction and collaboration. That need will always create demand for physical offices. A physical commute also creates better work-life separation. Driving to work puts people in the mindset to get busy, and the drive home lets them decompress.
Workplace culture: Companies built inside physical offices rely on shared space to provide a sense of community and culture. That workplace culture engages employees in the company mission. The camaraderie facilitates teamwork.
A leveled playing field: Not all employees have the resources to deck out their home office. Apartment dwellers may have just a single bedroom or kitchen table where they can conduct their business. Meanwhile, others can’t access reliable internet or cell service. In the office, everyone has the same technology perched atop the same size desk and gets to sit in the same style of comfortable chair. It positions everyone to do their best work.
The Pros and Cons of Remote Work
Remote work has benefits and drawbacks alike, and it’s essential to consider both when making decisions about the future of your team’s workflow. The advantages include:
Less commuting: Many employees enjoy remote work because they don’t have to commute. They save on gas and earn back some of their time. They’ll arrive at work after a bit more sleep without the stress brought on by road rage. As an employer, you also benefit from workers arriving on time, with no traffic-related excuses.
Saved expenses: Companies with a distributed workforce don’t need to invest in large office spaces. Even when employees come in part-time, the office can reduce its real estate footprint and save on utilities, too.
Uninterrupted focus: While offices are excellent for communication and collaboration, they truncate focused work. As an employer, you can benefit from letting employees work remotely part-time on those days when they need uninterrupted concentration.
Some of the cons of working from home include:
Distributing resources: For most companies, outsourcing tech support costs more. Working through technology problems without a centralized help desk takes more time and puts added stress on employees. Remote offices also affect how employers determine compensation. Two people can’t live in a one-bedroom apartment if both are working from home. With remote work over the long term, employees will need more pay to buy more living space, pay for higher electricity bills and furnish a home office. If the company doesn’t supply the computer equipment or internet access, they’ll still pay for it with a higher salary.
Disrupted work and life balance: Unplugging after work is harder when your office is in your living room. The fact that employees seem to work longer hours at home is deceptive. Eventually, it may cause burnout and job dissatisfaction that impacts the bottom line. Meanwhile, not seeing coworkers each day leaves a hole in many people’s social lives.
Distractions at home: For too many workers, the home office isn’t a boon to their productivity and focus. They’re surrounded by housemates who are also working from home and chatting on crowded conference calls. They’re interrupted continuously to take care of or entertain their kids. It’s easy to get distracted by the load of laundry that needs doing or the roommate watching television. With no managers or coworkers to watch over them and keep them on task, it’s more tempting to give in to those distractions, too.
How Has COVID-19 Changed the Traditional Office?
Many people have discussed how the pandemic is interrupting the way we work. In reality, it is changing the traditional office for the better. The post-pandemic office may look different than it once did, and that’s a good thing. What’s being implemented as a necessity now will turn into a strategic advantage. Some of the improvements to the traditional office include:
Indoor Air Quality Design
Air quality and ventilation are one of the most powerful tools to reduce viral transmission in indoor spaces. Configuring ventilation so air travels from the ceiling down is only a piece of the puzzle. Filtering in more outdoor air into a space decreases the concentration of airborne viruses and the likelihood that someone will be exposed to them. Office spaces now incorporate air purifiers, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation and high-efficiency particulate air filters into indoor ventilation systems.
In addition to creating safer air, these systems also make indoor spaces more comfortable. They filter out dust, pollen, mold and other allergens. Indoor air quality is a critical and overlooked element of workplace satisfaction, so the pandemic-related upgrades to air quality design will have a lasting positive impact.
A Return to Privacy
The collaborative environment created by open offices offers a considerable benefit. However, not all tasks require collaboration. When employees need to home in on an individual assignment and work without interruption, an open environment with no privacy screens can be a hindrance. The necessity for protective shields between workstations, born out of the pandemic, will give employees a better balance between privacy and collaboration. They can remain in an open environment with easy access to coworkers and have a partition that blocks sound and visual distractions to promote focus.
Hot desking has been a popular trend of the open office environment for a few years now. While it can improve the collaborative environment created by open offices, unassigned seating has its challenges. Besides the potential for contaminations spreading between those sharing a workstation, it can create clogs in the workflow. Some employees worry about finding a seat first thing in the morning. Others miss having a spot to personalize with photos or stash afternoon snacks. COVID-19 brings with it a return to assigned seating, a welcome change for many workers.
While the traditional office is far from dead, remote work isn’t going away either. As companies and their employees are just starting to realize, both working in an office and working from home offer incredible benefits. Perhaps the best way to maximize those benefits is to introduce a hybrid work environment. Employees who spend 60% to less than 80% of their time working off-site, or roughly three to four days a week, demonstrate the highest engagement and feel most productive.
Will COVID-19 Mark the End of the Open Office?
The office itself is here to stay. So what about the death of the open-plan office? If the pandemic has taught us anything, these densely packed arrangements are hotbeds for viral transmission. While it’s not going away, the open office is due for an adjustment. Before the pandemic arose, the open floor plan was beloved by some and reviled by others. Roughly 70% of offices had open floor plans before the COVID-19 outbreak. The architectural design was once touted as a hub for creativity and informal interactions with coworkers. In theory, this makes sense. Breaking down the physical walls between people should also break down the emotional and social barriers. The truth is a bit more complicated.
A 2018 study found transitioning an office to an open floor plan decreased face-to-face interaction by 70% and proportionately increased electronic communication. A main contributing factor is the lack of privacy. An employee might avoid popping over to a coworkers’ desk for a quick chat for fear of disturbing others in the desk pod. Any discussion that requires discretion isn’t conducive to the open floor plan, either. Meanwhile, more distractions arise with the crowding and echoing that comes with a sprawling, packed-like-sardines office space with no sound-dampening walls.
The open office isn’t necessarily fulfilling its promise to jumpstart creativity and ease communication. Instead, it’s pushing employees closer together. In 2017, square footage per office employee fell to just over 180, from its recent peak of over 197 in 2010-2011. A few years before the pandemic, companies were doing everything to squeeze more team members into tighter real estate. Since open office workstations have a smaller footprint, an open floor plan provided an easy solution. Post-pandemic, that’s no longer an option. Even as things return to normal, people will stay aware of how fast viruses can spread in close quarters.
One blow to the open office layout is current social distancing requirements. Any office that hosts employees on-site must position workstations at least 6 feet apart. Clumped desks or benching systems, where employees face each other and sit elbow-to-elbow, can’t hold the same capacity anymore. Offices that have relied on space efficiency may have too many employees to space out work desks far enough apart. In that case, their only option is to put up partitions.
Partitions and cubicles don’t necessarily mark the end of the open-concept office design. They simply improve it. Offices can no longer use an open floor plan as a space-saving solution. Now, open offices must have a deliberate purpose, built around communication. Adding privacy partitions is safer for workplaces that need to prevent the spread of illnesses and improve communication.
In cubicles, workers can still easily poke their heads over the dividers to chat with teammates. Their coworkers are still feet from their desks, providing the easy collaboration open offices were built for. The partitions make these conversations more private and less distracting. As a result, more employees feel comfortable engaging their coworkers.
Make Your Office Healthier With Arnold’s Office Furniture and Sunline Supply
The coronavirus doesn’t have to mean the end of the office. At Arnold’s Office Furniture, we provide unique solutions to let you keep taking advantage of the office you’ve come to love and rely on. We offer a fantastic collection of social distancing cubicles and can outfit your open plan workstations with safety partitions.
Besides our office furnishing solutions, we also have additional resources to help you keep your physical office safe. Our long-standing connections with manufacturers and experience importing furniture have allowed us to offer safe, reliable personal protective equipment (PPE) through Sunline Supply, our new ecommerce store for N95 masks, face shields and other PPE.
Alissa has over 25 years of experience in the office furniture industry. For many of those years, Alissa was a Senior Interior Designer. She then took her love of design and working with customers to the sales realm and has been dedicating her knowledge there ever since. Learn more about Alissa!