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.