The office is not be dead, but anyone still talking about ‘going back to normal’ is clinging to the past.
As we lurch through August towards the end of lockdown, questions about the future of the working world have shifted from ‘when are we going back?’ to ‘are we going back?’ As businesses were forced to adapt to a new set of circumstances, the switch to remote working has become increasingly agreeable to bosses and new discussions in the boardrooms are becoming new discussions in the broadsheets.
The UK government, eager to ‘restart’ the economy has demanded that people return to work, while the US government and various tycoons seem to believe they can simply ignore a globe-spanning virus as if it would go away like a playground bully. In every case, it doesn’t take a medical genius to realise that this literally is not how a pandemic works. Ever. Where people like Musk are concerned, it’s worth noting the number of wealthy individuals who evacuated to bunkers between March and May, and who are now investing in preparations against further calamity.
But on the ground, people keep talking about ‘going back’. Covid-19 hasn’t had such a dramatic impact over the short term that it has completely rewritten the way we operate in the long term, but make no mistake: We are past the point of no return. As comfortable as the spectre of the familiar might be, we have been away from the previous world for too long and a new momentum took over as we pivoted our lives to work in the current circumstances. For many workers, the new direction is just fine. Why should they pivot back?
A significant number of workers aren’t particularly eager to go back to the office. At base, it’s a health risk to the individual, which, if a person has underlying complications, involves risking your life merely to get into work, not to mention an increased likelihood of recurrent waves of outbreak if enough people do try to ignore the pandemic before we have a vaccine, and all of the wider ramifications therein. Put simply, no job is paying well enough to die for. There is no amazon delivery service for small piles of ash.
The potential to contract the virus on the commute aside, we have started to find, on both sides of the line that it’s just not cost-effective. The question is simple – if the work can be done just as well without the office, then what is the point of commuting from one building to another in the first place? It’s long, and getting longer, it’s tiring, and comes at a potentially significant cost. Commuting in London, for example, is expensive enough that if you move flat or change jobs, your second biggest concern after rent or salary, respectively, is whether going to work is going to make going to work financially unviable. Think about that. It’s safe to say that people living here and working from home have made significant savings purely from not having to haemorrhage money into the transport network.
The old lies that ‘it wouldn’t work’ have largely been proven false. Productivity over time did not immediately fallen off a cliff the way it was thought that it would. Old-school business owners will naturally resist working from home for the same reason governments resist devolution: Nobody with power willingly decentralises it. That’s just the mathematical reality. This isn’t to make all bosses and owners out to inherently be tyrants, despots, etc. Some have already started to move towards a wholly decentralised work environment, saving money on ever-rising rents and utility bills in the process. However, the dominant reality at the moment, is simply that COVID-19 has forced devolution and decentralisation of power. It has interrupted the previous structures and done so for long enough that the old normal is no longer relevant across the board. The new normal is now just normal. Moreover, the new normal is more cost-effective for many people up and down the scale. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, if the thinking from the top was that nobody would get anything done, but the reality from the bottom is quite the opposite. This proposes two possibilities: The one is that this unwaning productivity continues, while the other is that productivity falls off over time.
Let’s say we push the impending homelessness crisis across the Western hemisphere into 2021, and in the theoretical world in which things continue as they are until the end of the year, if productivity continues unabated, it could be due to a couple of things. The first is that people as a whole want to prove the longevity of decentralised working and prove to employers that they can work just as efficiently from home over the long term. The other is perhaps the influence of the impending economic downward spiral. Desperation to keep positions in a pool of foreseeably dwindling job opportunities translates into a more stable work drive in order to satisfy managers and stave off redundancy.
It could also translate into heightened competition. If employees think they might lose their jobs sometime in the relatively near future, but that not all jobs will go, then they may see an opportunity to preserve their income, and thus relative safety, even amidst cuts. As a result, we may see a workforce that is significantly more compelled towards overwork as they jockey for position, real or imagined. In some small instances, not overall, we may even see a slight increase in productivity. Naturally, this shouldn’t be interpreted by anyone as signs of a strong work ethic – it is merely a variation on the drive the caused an intern at a London branch of Bank of America in 2013, to work for 72 hours, which is thought to be the cause of the seizure that killed him.
If productivity starts to fall off, and there are some indications that this might be the case, eventually, then this indicates that the framework of working from home is moving, or has moved, from an exception to the norm to a part of the norm. This compels two eventualities. The first is a simple refocus on getting people back into the office space. The second, if working from home continues to be part of the norm, we could see a heavier focus on employee spyware technology, hour logging, and so on. This may be relatively benign, but should be a cause for concern. At the dystopian end of the spectrum this turns people’s homes into a network of sweatshops.
There’s a psychological benefit in being able to separate your work and your life, which can get blurry very fast if your home is also your workspace. This effect would only have been compounded by the constraints of the lockdown. People who are expected to be ‘on call’ all the time have found that their lives outside of their workplace suffered greatly, with relationships breaking down and mental health deteriorating and this can happen even when there is a physical distance between the home and the location associated with work. You don’t have to think hard to recognise just how potentially destructive a complete merger of work and home could be to some individuals. Having an entirely separate location associated with work can be beneficial, and we may well see this become more apparent over time.
With technology more or less dictating the ways in which we work these days, in place of factories and manual labour, companies have taken advantage of the easily accessible software suites on the market. Many workers can operate just fine with a basic array of Microsoft programs, but it is the more specialised industries that will be the real test beds for calculating scalability and working out how much of the work force can truly operate remotely.
The minimum system requirements for Adobe software, now, is relatively forgiving. Your average computer will meet them without hassle. Minimum specs, however, are more or less the requirement to open the program. Beyond that, the requirements can scale rapidly, and files can become very complicated and very heavy when you’re working with creative programs professional capacity. Compounded by the likelihood that workers in these fields will be running multiple programs at once, means that the macbook they bought 10 years ago for university, and now use almost entirely to run facebook and twitter on, is just not going to be up to the task.
Remote networks complicate things further. While most remote connectivity programs come free for personal use, they charge a premium for commercial and track user interaction to enforce that. If workers are consistently logging into TeamViewer Monday to Friday between nine and five-thirty the system will recognise the signs and lock them out until someone pays up. This can get pricey depending on scale. Then there’s the actual experience of using them: Even on a powerful computer, responsiveness and stability varies wildly from service to service. On lower-end machines the requirements of running multiple programs at the same time across a remote network tends to make even mid-range computers grind harder than Gary Vaynerchuk with an Onlyfans account.
The result is that without standardised pre-tested setups with some amount of future scalability to account for software updates and increased requirements, companies have no way of ensuring that their employees can do their work adequately. In an environment the revolves around tight deadlines and fast turnarounds this can cause all sorts of complications. If a computer breaks or data gets lost, the number of people who don’t keep their data regularly backed up an external storage drive, if they have one at all, as is typical for an office environment, will inevitably create problems for someone at some point. In an office environment where computer replacements may be readily available in the event of mechanical failure, there is no such guarantee in a remote environment.
People working, or looking to work, in some industries, if they do not have the capability to invest in the technology necessary, will find that working from the office has a positive impact on their workflow. If a job requires expensive or hardware-intensive software, employees will probably be using them through remote access software. In this case an office environment can actually make sense as there will be a standardised set of computers that have, and are known to be capable of running, the required suite of software. Whereas in a home environment there is no guarantee that employees have computers capable of running demanding software, nor the money to buy the necessary hardware or software, and depending on the programs and the work, these costs can rack up quite significantly. Upgrades, similarly, can be create extra demands, which may be better handled at an organisational level rather than individual. While this sort of instability is endurable over the short term, it is dysfunctional as a means of day-to-day operation. Other more specialised industries that deal with motion capture or recording may require technology or even simply space, to operate and find that they cannot adequately translate their work environments to their home environments.
This creates two options: One is that hiring employees in many specialised industries gains an extra gate in needing a minimum level of technological investment before being eligible for hire in a competitive market and with limited jobs. Meaning that anyone from a disadvantaged background without the resources to put towards more expensive technology, is automatically priced out of their desired field of employment, regardless of aptitude. This hurts business and workers. Alternatively, a company may need to send out hardware to ensure that employees have the necessary equipment to do their jobs, which creates its own set of complications. In the increasingly niche event that the job is reliant more on desktops than laptops, multiple monitors or other specific setups, then you will almost certainly need a centralised office space.
Other industries or specific positions dealing with sensitive data, such as banking and investments, then companies, in these cases, can’t rely on the cloud. They are going to want to keep in a highly secure centralised location under monitored conditions. For instance, if you access one of these systems remotely through a shared desktop application, and you deal with something like account data and lists, what’s to stop you from decreasing the window scale slightly, clicking into your desktop, and taking a screenshot of ‘your’ desktop? Theoretically, if the other computer is monitoring its input, it still has no way of detecting someone taking screenshots of customer data on their desktop. This is an extreme example, but it does illustrate that you can’t remove certain jobs from their locations, even if they are technology driven.
Somewhere on the fringe we have people who are so invested in the previous status quo, that they refuse to acknowledge any kind of change. They might insist that anyone working with a computer but outside of an office is simply not working a ‘real’ job. They tend to set up false dichotomies between jobs that are and aren’t ‘real’ where ‘real’ is associated with tradition and everything outside of this shrinking sphere of relevance is not traditional and therefore not real. This despite a global economy that has been increasingly moving away from legacy standards for quite some time. The reality being that economies don’t just collapse if someone changes a variable – quite the opposite. The latest change, which will be scary for some, will trend away from the monolithic centralised hubs of work, potentially to decentralised bubbles formed around local communities, and this could have far reaching social and economic ripples. It’s funny to think that a certain amount of fragmentation might actually bring people together in ways that centralised economic hubs never did.
It may not be that people dislike the office itself, more that many of the benefits start to be outweighed by the accumulation of small problems surrounding it, like commutes, dress codes and extraneous hand-me-down concepts of professionalism. This has been changing for a long time, but given that the people in influential positions are still likely to be from generations that still cling to archaic ideas of what employment is, the move forward has been slow. This will cycle around again and again as current modes of thinking become obsolete and new efficiencies run up against old traditions.
In the wake of the pandemic, we are seeing an acceleration in shifts towards a more relevant concept of work that is based in the 21st century, rather than the 19th. In the 21st century, the reality of an office is, arguably, far broader than the archetypal grey box containing Matrix-eqsue rows of cubicles and terminals. The office won’t die out; it cannot because as an idea in itself, it isn’t obsolete. However, its position as an all-encompassing template for work is obsolete, and has been for at least a decade. Now the psychology and the practicalities have shifted. New ideas have been forced into practice and they have paid off. Even as this happens, people will turn towards the past for stability and comfort because the future is uncertain and change scares them. Better the devil you know? Too bad. The office isn’t dead. The old concepts of normal are dead. The post-pandemic work world will change because it is the basic law of reality that everything must change. There is no going back.