The Post-Pandemic Office as a Place of Inspirational Encounter

Now that we have experienced that knowledge-work is possible anywhere, our offices hopefully evolve into creative places for inspiring encounters between people.

In the short term, the Coro­na pan­dem­ic has giv­en the work­place a sig­nif­i­cant shake-up. In this final phase of the pan­dem­ic, the excit­ing ques­tion is whether this stim­u­lus was suf­fi­cient to rev­o­lu­tion­ize or at least ren­o­vate the world of work also in the long term. What will pre­vail of remote work and home office when we have learned to live with this virus as we do with oth­ers? Will we then return to the sta­tus quo and our pre-pan­dem­ic open-plan offices? And why should we do that?

Many knowl­edge work­ers now know both extremes of a spec­trum on which we now have to look for pos­si­ble solu­tions. Before Coro­na, “real” work only took place in the office, while work­ing from home was a tol­er­at­ed but always a bit sus­pi­cious excep­tion for employ­ees with­out career ambi­tions. For the past year and a half, most knowl­edge work­ers now work pri­mar­i­ly in their home office or even just some­where. It works sur­pris­ing­ly well for many, depend­ing on their life phase and liv­ing situation.

The advan­tages of a pri­mar­i­ly dis­trib­uted work orga­ni­za­tion are also unde­ni­able and have mean­while become dear to us. If you spend less time trav­el­ing between home and office, you have more time for work and life. And if home equals office, work also equals life. Work-life bal­ance becomes work-life inte­gra­tion. And that’s a good thing because fam­i­ly life doesn’t just hap­pen before 7:30 am and after 6:30 pm – not a ground­break­ing insight, but an entire­ly new expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly for many men.

Some decades ago, the office was where the phys­i­cal files were, and thus the work had to hap­pen there. But files and work have become increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal since then. Nev­er­the­less, access to this dig­i­tized work was ini­tial­ly only pos­si­ble in the office because of the infra­struc­ture, the PC, the net­work, the access to the main­frame, etc. Thanks to high-speed Inter­net, all of this has been a thing of the past for at least ten years. So for many knowl­edge-work­ers, there is tech­ni­cal­ly no rea­son to go to the office any­more. They can work almost anywhere.

Dur­ing this peri­od of forced remote work, anoth­er func­tion of the office became promi­nent. We humans are not just machines for knowl­edge work, but social beings. We love to do things togeth­er, and we want to inspire each oth­er. Per­haps the most impor­tant place in the office has there­fore always been the cafe­te­ria. The chance encoun­ters there, and the some­times short and some­times extend­ed con­ver­sa­tions are often the pow­er­ful spark for a new idea or at least the lubri­cant for work to flow smoothly.

Before Coro­na, this social com­po­nent of the office as a place for cre­ative human encoun­ters, while appre­ci­at­ed and enjoy­able, was seen more as a dec­o­ra­tive acces­so­ry. Now that we’ve dig­i­tized every­thing and can work any­where with an Inter­net con­nec­tion, we’re find­ing that it’s pre­cise­ly this social com­po­nent that’s miss­ing — or at least suf­fer­ing. Human encoun­ters are hard to digitize.

So the post-pan­dem­ic office will become much more than in the past a place for inspir­ing human encoun­ters. Few­er peo­ple than in the past will vis­it the office pure­ly to work there or coor­di­nate work activ­i­ties. All this one can do much eas­i­er and more com­fort­ably in a vir­tu­al set­ting. The most impor­tant rea­son for vis­it­ing the office, espe­cial­ly after this peri­od of social dis­tanc­ing, will be to meet col­leagues and exchange ideas. In the past, exhaus­tion often dom­i­nat­ed at the end of an office day — in the future, this should be inspi­ra­tion. In any case, the office has had its day as a pure lay­ing bat­tery for knowl­edge workers.

What is need­ed now are design con­cepts that cre­ate a crav­ing for cre­ative encoun­ters. A good start might be a cen­tral cafe­te­ria for open con­ver­sa­tions with cor­ners or rooms with white­boards and flipcharts in the imme­di­ate vicin­i­ty for the spon­ta­neous deep­en­ing of dis­cus­sions. Per­haps there would be larg­er rooms near this mod­ern ago­ra where train­ing, lec­tures, or the like are held on cer­tain days. An attrac­tive con­cept that makes the trip to the office worth­while because it ensures inspir­ing encoun­ters could replace many impend­ing reg­u­la­tions on tem­po­rary pres­ence in the office.

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