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The future of the office?

Some five months on from the imposition of lockdowns around the world, life as we knew it has changed and we face the strong possibility that many of the changes will become permanent.

While we have to hope that the regular use of face masks, social distancing and routine quarantines will become a distant memory, there are others, such as working from home and the adoption of more ‘virtual’ technology, that are likely to stay with us, providing numerous benefits as long as they are kept in balance.

For example, working from home, where it is possible or practical, can be both convenient, productive and help reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ and road congestion. However, can it replace the office completely? When people work together in an office or workplace they gain much from important social and team building benefits. Office life also provides great potential for generating new ideas for our businesses, not to mention creating the perfect training environment for new staff. Perhaps the ideal situation would be one where companies enable employees to work from home for part of the week but have a couple of days each week when everyone heads into the office.

Technology is indeed helping reproduce many of the benefits of working together – often more efficiently. Virtual meetings, for example, tend to be more polite and succinct than physical ones, it is hard for a senior manager to drone on when people attending the virtual meeting can simply zone out, get on with something else or go off and get a coffee without it being noticed. That said, no one can ever persuade me that such meetings can entirely replace real meetings with all the human chemistry and body language you simply do not get with virtual meetings. I would venture to say that, in the theoretical case of two identical companies, one where the employees regularly get together for work and the other where everything is virtual, the first company would outperform the other - assuming all other factors were identical, of course.

There is also another very important consideration. While some people have adapted to working from home like ‘ducks to water’, not everyone thrives in such an isolated environment. Working from home requires tremendous self-discipline that involves avoiding distractions and focusing on work. For many others, there is the issue of being able to stop working and separate work from home life.

A key question facing many companies therefore is whether to maintain their existing offices or downsize to a smaller premises dominated by a decent meeting room.

How it all pans out will have a major impact on many companies that rely on offices for their livelihoods. Landlords and property developers are, of course, the first in line, while businesses that depend on public transport work, road building or office equipment supplies are just some of the many others.

While I have worked from home for 34 of my 43 year career, and would not consider changing it, I also love spending time working from our office. I spend way too little time there and am probably less measurably productive when doing so. On the other hand, the benefits are huge for my mental health, the business, my social skills and, hopefully, for the rest of the team I work alongside, and its location in Freiburg helps too.

In conclusion, while I greatly appreciate the benefits that remote work and virtual technology have brought us – imagine Lockdown without them! – I am not convinced that remote working will ever completely replace the office.

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