Is the Office Dead, or Merely Comatose?

It is difficult to gain a clear perspective on the future of office working, and of the office block itself, from where we currently stand in the middle of a pandemic.

Is the office dead, or is it comatose, waiting until such a time that we can all embrace commuting again?

How can the office survive?  Will it need to adapt and become something different, and if so, how will this affect our working routines and habits? 

How Grim Can it Get?

In the basic narrative of Sleeping Beauty, the Brothers Grimm transcribed and printed what had been an orally transmitted folk tale, dating back to at least the 14th century.

A princess is cursed to sleep for a hundred years by a wicked fairy, or stepmother. She is only awoken from her slumber after 100 years by a prince, who kisses her to break the enchantment.

In our towns and cities, if we’re waiting for that magic kiss to restore things to what they once were. But we could be waiting for a long time, and we could be waiting in vain.

The economy is dynamic but also reactive and sensitive. We’ve seen the impact of putting it to bed voluntarily.

Therefore, we cannot simply wait things out, until some sort of all-clear. But nor can we expect a straightforward return to the way things used to be.

We’ve already seen the huge growth in remote working, but the next step is to consider what happens to those office spaces we no longer occupy.

This has to tie in with longer-term thinking about the purpose of our built-up urban areas and town centres, and the whole nature of how we work, and, ultimately, how we want to live.

The Invention of the Office

One way of looking at the impact of Covid-19 on office culture is that it’s brought forward changes that have been bubbling under for some time.

Historically, offices came about in response to the demands of large bureaucracies. One such organisation was the East India Company, whose head quarters, East India House, employed over 3,500 workers in 1801.

In those times, office clerks would have spent long working days painstakingly transcribing letters, papers and accounts by hand.

Over time, offices have evolved, just as the technology and means of communication have changed.

Regimentation eventually gave way to early, open plan offices of the 20th century, following the methodology of the engineer Frank Taylor, in the pursuit of maximising industrial efficiency.

Taylorism was the first theory of management that focused specifically on the analysis and optimisation of workflows.

What it failed to do was take the human and social elements of the workplace into account.

More space through the growth of high rise buildings made open plan working more practical, but a more socially interactive element came in with the German Bürolandschaft concept of office planning in the 1950s.

These were more informally-designed open plan office spaces.

From this the concept of the Action Office later evolved, with Robert Propst’s design of office cubicles, which brought a greater element of personal privacy into open plan layouts.

The culmination of this was essentially an intensive-farming style principle of packing people in.

The history of the office can feel like a series of reactions, ping-ponging between styles, caught between the demands of productivity and social interaction.

The most recent of these kinds of office design trends is the ultra-informality of the co-working space.

What Has Gone Wrong with Co-working?

All was not well with coworking before Covid-19. Despite its trappings of cultural dynamism and openness, it is as guilty of a blanket approach to people’s working needs as the rigidity of the cubicle farm.

It’s just that, with the co-working space, its conformity is dressed up as comfortable non-conformity.

Instead of the water-cooler or the office canteen, there’s an on-site barista, table-tennis, pastries, doughnuts and beanbag cushions.

The co-working space trades in routine for casualness, and an idea that work is fun. It feels very much attuned to a culture where what we appear to be doing is as important as what we are actually doing.

A big player in the coworking revolution has been WeWork, a company with well-documented troubles before Coronavirus hit.

Redefining What Disruption Means

WeWork was a self-styled disrupter with a model of taking out long leases and using them to create short-term office space sublets.

But Covid-19 has redefined disruption, or returned it to its original meaning. And the impact on coworking spaces has been brutal.

Office footfall continues to be down, despite Government pleas for workers to return to their desks. Some of the country’s biggest firms are still opting to keep staff at home.

As we face further lockdown restrictions, stretching into and beyond Autumn, the idea of a return to normal feels as distant as ever.

The office has been a remarkably long-standing feature of the business landscape, and it has changed over time, while remaining the mainstay of how large sections of the population work. But is its time over?

In what sort of form should it, or can it, survive Covid-19?

The answer to office working is not binary. Just as it was a mistake to think of coworking as a panacea for offices, so it’s also a mistake to see working from home as the solution, or future, to white collar work as a whole.

Not all work can be done at home, but more importantly, not everyone wants to work from home.

We are social animals, and interaction sparks productivity and ideas.

But these things don’t mean that the established model of working and commuting to offices will be the future one, post-Covid.

Is it time to reimagine the office once again, but this time more fundamentally, going beyond furnishings and fittings?

Location and Design

What if the office moves out of the city and much closer to the areas people traditionally commute from?

Instead of people commuting to their corporate HQ, they make a much shorter trip to their local office hub, and they only do this periodically, when they’re not working from home?

Decentralisation and localism are already seen as ways of reviving regional centres. These principles could extend beyond the future of the high street to how people’s work intersects with their daily lives and how their local communities function.

At the heart of this will also be the design of these working hubs, to ensure they can meet the needs of a broad variety of business models.

The question then is what happens to city and town centres which have relied on large-scale commuting to grow and thrive, as both centres of commerce and social activity?

Can we repurpose them, and will this maintain their value? If, for example, the enormous investment in city centre living is predicated on the city as an inherent attractor of wealth, what happens if the offices move out?

Building a New Narrative

The Brothers Grimm didn’t invent Sleeping Beauty. They took what was already an established story, passed down through generations, and gave it a new form. In so doing, they defined it for generations to come.

The notion of the office is long-established, but it’s now time to breathe new life into it, to wake it up from its slumber, and ensure it is fit for the future.

A Partisan Approach

We’re a Manchester-based brand consultancy, and we’re interested in supporting and promoting change in our cities and towns, and helping to find positive solutions that will sustain future development.

For more information, please call us on 0161 860 7010, or email hello@partisan.studio

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