Remote working has been growing steadily in popularity for the last few years, fuelled by innovations in technology and the development of shared working spaces and hotdesking models. The Coronavirus pandemic forced the majority of businesses globally to close their offices and make a longer-term shift to remote working. As we begin to emerge from the global health crisis, what does the future of the 21st century office look like, and will workers return to the fixed workspaces of the past?
The history of the office
Ancient Rome is credited with gifting us the legacy of the office; offices and government offices lay at the heart of Roman towns in large ‘forums’ usually containing shops and dedicated workspaces. The fall of the Roman empire saw such office buildings disappear, replaced instead with ‘office’ work taking place in or above homes, with shop owners regularly living above their stores alongside any employees.
The 18th century bore witness to the first dedicated office buildings in Britain, the Ripley Building, built for the Royal Navy, and the East India House, designed as the headquarters for the thousands of staff needed to handle the bureaucracy of long-distance trading. Open plan offices took shape in the 20th century, when the Larkin Administration Building opened in 1906, where workers were organised into rows of desks in cheap, high rise buildings. The 1960s gave rise to office landscaping and semi-enclosed workspaces, while the ‘80’s saw the cheap and effective modular walls rise in popularity, resulting in the creation of mass cubicle offices globally. Evidently, the concept of the ‘office’ has always been evolving, but a dedicated corporate space has been in place for the majority of workers since the 20th century.
Digital transformation and the ‘smart office’
Over the last ten years or so, digitalisation has transformed the office as we know it, as workers gain more freedom to work remotely. Demographic and technological change were already creating a shift away from the fixed office space, but the global pandemic has accelerated this evolution, ushering in a new era of smart offices. The way we design, build and occupy offices will change forever.
As the pandemic moves under control, many workers are continuing to work remotely, with strong appetite present for mass remote working to be sustained. PowWowNow’s research found 70% of business leaders aim to increase the amount of flexibility their workers have once we return to the office, while 80% of workers believe flexible working makes a job more appealing.
Moving forward, businesses will re-evaluate their corporate real estate footprints, either downsizing or moving to satellite offices. These spaces will likely only be used for irregular team catch-ups, team-building activities or client meetings, with remote working to become the norm.
As such, the future of the office will be comprised of a hybrid workforce of both semi-regular onsite workers and remote workers. This, compounded by the fact that AI and automation are likely to form part of the office of tomorrow, will mean connectivity and the integration of services will be needed to unite these different strands of the workforce.
Over the past few months of the pandemic, businesses have invested in remote collaboration tools, cybersecurity technology, HR tools and workforce training programmes to ensure their staff can continue to work effectively and progress while remote. These tools will be embraced as we move forwards, and investment in technology and digitalisation will only accelerate.
‘Smart offices’ will become the offices of the future, where technology is used to help employees work productively and efficiently, whether that’s in-office or remotely. Such offices will involve leveraging analytics and connected technologies to ensure the workplace can cater to the needs of its employees at any time.
Applications of technology in the ‘smart office’
Smart meeting rooms will be able to use intelligent technology to integrate software and hardware tools with the physical meeting room and build a more productive space. For example, IT leaders and business decision-makers can gain insight into how and when spaces are being used and ensure they are being used efficiently. Such intelligent meeting rooms will mean distributed and global teams can work from any location but remain connected and productive. Video and conference calling tools like PowWowNow and Zoom can be used to ensure remote workers can join in-office meetings, and allow you to schedule, and host, meetings, while whiteboard tools can be used to share ideas quickly and effectively.
Technology companies are already using IoT and data to make the sitting/standing desk experience more scientific; alerts can notify workers when they’ve been sitting or standing for too long and provide analysis on sitting habits, while departments can compete using gamification tools for healthy activity. Such data can also be used to understand and track occupancy of the office for shared and hot desking so that smaller office spaces can be managed and used by workforces balancing in-office work with remote work. Workers will be able to use software to book and reserve spaces throughout their working day.
The benefits of smart offices are numerous; by analysing and tracking office occupation, movement and resources in real-time, offices can respond to optimise the performance of the building and its workers. This means such spaces can create an improved worker experience that can boost productivity and wellbeing, as well as improving talent attraction and retention. Smart buildings are also easier to run and maintain, use space flexibly and efficiently, and reduce environmental impact.
The way forward
Businesses will be financially incentivised to reduce the cost of renting and servicing large commercial properties in urban centres, and many will cut these costs by implementing more remote working. The unproductive commute will become a relic of the past, with workers empowered to maximise their time working wherever suits them best.
While a decline in offices in central urban spaces will be a short-term issue, this will leave room for housing, cultural and leisure activities, as well as the creative industries. Meanwhile rural areas that have long suffered decline, as the young move away to cities, will have opportunities for regeneration with people able to work remotely.
There will always be a need for social interaction, and the physical workspace will adapt to become a place designed to foster innovation and connection. Workers will visit such spaces to exercise, eat, shop and collaborate, so that the office of the future will need to offer such mixed-use space and facilities.
The death knell is sounding for the fixed office space as we know it, but the future is ripe with opportunity. With flexible working to become par for the course, workers will be better able to balance work and life commitments, and workspaces will therefore become more accommodating to working parents, people with disabilities, and those with other commitments. The office can become more diverse and thrive off this multiplicity of thought and experience, while productivity and wellbeing will be enhanced.