Remote offices work now, but they’re functioning only because of team building already in place. In-person work is more effective in the long term.
There has been much speculation that we are at the “end of the office,” to quote a Financial Times article. This has been the speculation in light of the massive shift of office work and teaching online as of March 2020.
However, times of crises, during which uncertainty prevails, do not provide a good context for strategic thinking about real estate, cities and work. The post-COVID situation may not differ all that much from the pre-coronavirus (assuming social distancing is no longer necessary), based on research conducted over the last five years on where people actually perform their work tasks.
Since the mid 1990s, there has been considerable research describing how people work from a variety of locations: trains, cars, airplanes, but also co-working spaces, cafés, parks and home. However, little of this research has sought to quantify the phenomenon, relying instead on in-depth case studies and theorization, illustrated by anecdotes. Recently, however, my own work, and that of others (see for example Felstead and Henseke, 2017; Ojala and Pyöriä, 2018), have used surveys and census data to investigate the phenomenon population-wide.
Our conclusions are consistent. Despite the advent of the Internet, wi-fi, cell phones and smart phones, there has only been a slow shift towards new work locations. By-and-large, where people worked in 2019 resembles where they worked in the mid-1990s.
Changes have occurred in the workplace. It is increasingly common for office workers to perform, say, 70 percent of their work tasks in their office, 10 percent in cafés, 10 percent whilst travelling, and the remainder at home. These proportions were configured differently 25 years ago, with maybe 85 per cent of tasks performed in the office and the rest performed elsewhere, but this does not constitute a revolution, just a shift.
From a real-estate perspective, many large employers seized the opportunity to reconfigure their workspaces, introducing shared spaces instead of fixed offices. Some (but only some) employers have been able to reduce their office space by 10 or 20 percent – again a shift rather than a revolution.
Furthermore, based on interviews and surveys conducted by students and me over the last few years, the limits of these arrangements are becoming evident. For example, the lack of privacy and difficulty concentrating are problematic in a shared workspace. The efficiency and coordinating capacity that exist when people are working side-by-side can be lost when configurations constantly alter or when people are not physically present. When a quick question or a nod would have sufficed, emails, Zoom, Skype and the like reduce the efficiency with which teams and organizations function.
Another factor that has clearly emerged is that working from home can be difficult. Even pre-pandemic, those working from home reported loneliness, problems with childcare and limitations in terms of equipment and private space. Many home-workers resolved this by, in fact, not working from home: a typical home-worker would work two or three hours from home, move to a café (often to have human companionship) and then have person-to-person meetings (for example with clients or colleagues).
In the few cases where offices have gone completely virtual (a few sales teams seem to have done so), regular in-person meetings remain important. It should be noted that such sales teams in any case spend most of their time on the road, so going “office-less” is not a major step.
Why is remote work (apparently) so effective during the crisis?
Over the last eight weeks, many of us have gained first-hand experience of working from home 100 percent of the time. We have done so out of necessity, and out of necessity will carry on doing so until authorities suggest otherwise.
The current short-term success of massive remote working is fundamentally premised on cooperation and communication between people who know each other in a “real” sense. Most teams, organizations and departments consist of people who have interacted physically, in office space, for many years. Even though many of these teams include gig workers, these workers have often worked repeatedly with the same clients.
Should massive remote working continue much longer, well-functioning teams will begin to unravel. The unspoken understanding and rapid coordination enabled by previous physical proximity will disappear, replaced by awkward two-dimensional images on cramped laptop screens, clumsily interrupting each other, dealing with glitches and with no opportunity for crucial, informal after-meeting chats.
These images will eventually cease to be viewed as trusted colleagues, becoming contacts with whom we share little or no social connection. Research suggests social media can only complement, not substitute for, in-person interactions: the loneliness of virtual contact will begin to pervade office work.
Is the COVID-19 crisis a game-changer?
One objection to this argument is that the pandemic is a game-changer. Certainly, some things are bound to change; however, the most likely changes are ones accelerating already well-established trends. The tendency to work from home, which comprises 7.1 percent of Canada’s total workforce (and 20 percent of professional service workers) in 2016, according to the census, may shift to 9 or 10 percent, after going up just 1 percent since 1996. A shift of 2 or 3 percent – if it occurs – is not insignificant. It will lead to vacancies, particularly in marginal office markets and buildings, but again, hardly revolutionary.
Neither technology, pandemics (such as the 1918 Spanish flu), nor even nuclear bombs, have fundamentally altered the way cities function or the need for human interaction and contact. These change slowly, gradually reflecting altering technologies, cultural norms and expectations.
Once the pandemic is over, most people will seek to return to life as before. This will not be entirely possible, but the desire to return to normal is a force to be reckoned with, and a good caution against extrapolating the exceptional circumstances of spring 2020 into the medium-term. History, combined with trends that prevailed before the crisis (some of which were only beginning to be documented), provide a better guide to what the future may hold for work.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.