Future of work: Is this the end of the office?

Offices really took off in medieval England; Chaucer wrote about hiring someone to ‘oure office’ in 1386.  Then, the word office related to the provision of some helpful service or duty, which for the most part they still are today. Ricky Gervais ridiculed office work in The Office, although this was perhaps more a condemnation of tedious work and appalling bosses rather the offices themselves.

The concept of the office has become synonymous with industry, gossip, friendship and conflict, and until February 2020 the future of office work looked assured.

In January, Facebook announced plans to hire 1000 new staff to fill its new £1 billion London HQ.  However, since the pandemic, the notion of thousands of people working together in a single building again seems increasingly unlikely.  The Home Office has told its staff not to return for one year (Spectator, July 2020). Gartner have shown that as of June 2020, 80% of workers are home based, and it seems unlikely that this situation will be reversed.

 

The Remote Working Experience

Data compiled by Raconteur (June 2020) paints an interesting picture, and one that is not straightforward. Although 80% of staff are currently home based, 53% of those surveyed stated they would choose to work from home only 2 to 3 days per week. In many industries, a significant amount reported working longer hours when at home, and 53% (again) identified the need to set up strict parameters around working hours. With 20% stating that their mental health and feeling of loneliness had been negatively impacted since working from home.

It is early days; research into occupational burnout suggests that key factors are regular long working hours, and depersonalisation stemming from a sense of anonymity, or a lack of recognition at work (Lheureux, Truchot, & Borteyrou, 2016). More than any other time, individuals are working longer hours, often in isolation, and with only virtual interaction with colleagues and line managers; this situation certainly meets the conditions for burnout.

Which businesses may experience more of this later in the year.

 

Learning Culture?

Research conducted by PwC identified that the main demands of Millennials are development, and rapid progression.  Flexibility, and work life balance, are also key.  These factors are more important than remuneration.  On one level, Millennials want to be given objectives to achieve, and then allowed freedom in how these are delivered.  This preference may suit remote working quite well, and provided they have intelligent, reliable and comprehensive technological platforms to work with, the task focused aspects of work may be largely unaffected for many who would previously have inhabited an office.

I predate Millennials, but an incredibly important component of my development, and general process of maturing through work, has been the role of mentors and informal tutors.  Much of this tacit learning has involved observation of competent others at work, and both formal and informal conversations where important hard and soft skills have been discussed.  I have taken jobs in the past because I knew I would learn a great deal from working with my employer.

Informal learning from mentors and role models, perhaps even on a subconscious level, has been instrumental for me and I suspect many who inhabit Gen X.  Virtual training works very well, and the formal aspects of knowledge transfer will doubtless continue just fine, although how the more subtle development of character, mindset and professional values will be affected by a largely remote workforce remains to be seen.

 

Conclusions

As ever, the middle path seems the most likely, for the time being.  The majority of workers enjoy the flexibility of working from home, but most don’t want to be remote all the time.  It remains to be seen whether, as the months roll by, people will adjust to remote working or miss the physical office more.

The benefits of remote working are clear; no commute, walk the dog at lunchtime, and much work can generally continue as before.  However, the sense of isolation many are experiencing will have an impact on their well-being and motivation, as will the absence of informal real-world communication, collaboration and learning that was so integral for many of us.

It is too soon to tell how the remote working revolution will play out, and I am not writing off the institution of the office just yet.

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