Glass office building.

WFH Forever: Is the Office Obsolete?

21st August 2020

For office-based employees, working from home has become the norm since the beginning of lockdown back in March. It has been an enjoyable break from the monotony of the office for some, while others have found the adjustment a considerable challenge.

With the re-opening of non-essential venues like shops, restaurants, pubs and gyms, life appears to be returning to some form of normality (albeit at a safe two-metre distance!)– But it seems that in our road to recovery, a return to the office will be one of the final steps for many.

But is it one we’ll ever take? Or will office life become a thing of the past now that the remote working revolution that’s been touted for years has become a reality in just a few short months?

Benefits of Working from Home

Adapting to remote working has been a rushed process for many businesses. In fact, for most companies, the decision to lock the doors and go remote was taken overnight.

The transition was smoother for organisations that already accommodated some measure of home working than for others with a traditional physical office model. However, employees from all industries are experiencing huge benefits to their personal lives and professional productivity as a result of the new arrangement.

The most obvious perk is that it’s been far more flexible for many, particularly those with families. Since the closure of schools, many parents who would otherwise have struggled with childcare have been able to manage thanks to remote working, although admittedly this has presented its own challenges. When schools return, working from home will also make the school run easier.

Working from home is also a huge timesaver for many employees. Where once people may have dedicated two hours or more in the morning to getting ready and travelling to work, most people’s daily commute now constitutes the time it takes them to get to the kitchen table. And with many of us using this time to sleep in a little longer, we become better rested and therefore more productive.

Studies have suggested that workers are more productive when they work from home. In an earlier blog back in May, we discussed the Stanford University study which revealed that telecommuters work the equivalent of an extra full day when working from home, and that the availability of this more flexible working arrangement led to lower attrition rates as well as employees taking fewer days off for sickness and holidays.

In a world where mental health is an increasingly hot topic, and more of us are experiencing burnout than ever, it’s easy to see how the home working environment can contribute to a more relaxed mindset in which the distractions of the office are limited. But rather than leading to reduced productivity as employers may expect, remote workers are at a greater risk of overworking than coasting along at home.

Looking at these results, one might wonder why it has taken the current crisis for employers to adapt.

So Why The Resistance?

Whilst some companies have been open-minded in embracing the technology which has enabled many staff to work from home, others have resisted the system for a very long time.

But is this merely the result of a culture of distrust between employers and staff? Or is the office business model truly a more efficient way for a workplace to operate?

One company certainly thought so. In 2013, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer made headlines when she announced that telecommuting would be permanently banned. The move forced several hundred employees to relocate back to the office and was highly controversial for the changes it forced in what was seemingly a functioning system.

But Meyer was concerned that the remote model was costing the company when it came to innovation and connection. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallways and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” she said. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

This may have been true seven years ago. But the ubiquity of technology has led to near-constant availability, meaning that bright ideas can be sparked from a Google Hangouts message or Zoom call – even the dreaded team-building exercise has gone digital in the form of virtual escape rooms.

While at the time of Yahoo!’s announcement, many employers seized upon the company’s decision as a reason to remain office-based, the impact on the company’s culture may not have been worth the change. With many Yahoo! staff already disgruntled prior to Meyer’s announcement, the following twelve months saw over a third of the workforce leave.

Following a global pandemic and major lockdown, we’re forced to ask – how many staff will want to return to the office once they’ve had a glimpse of the newfound freedom remote working brings?

Polls indicate the figure could be less than 50%. Whilst factors such as anxiety over shared spaces and public transport influenced the attitudes of British workers on the subject, there is no doubt that the flexibility of the work from home arrangement is attractive to many.

So what does the future hold?

What would office-free life look like?

It would mean a lifetime of potential for awkward or embarrassing zoom moments – something many of us have already experienced! And while we still might have the occasional in-person meeting, the way we socialise with work colleagues would be changed for the long term. For some this may inspire a sigh of relief, but what would starting a new job look like under these circumstances? How does this affect the process of settling in and forming friendships in the office?

For those who live alone and rely on the workplace for daily interaction with others, a remote future could also look very lonely – an isolating position that many have already found themselves in due to the current crisis.

But it could also herald a new era for work-life balance. Whilst the death of the commute would give many up to two hours back, in the long-run it could mean a greater flexibility when it comes to the 9-5 – a concept which may also be on its way out.

On a practical level, the office appears to be obsolete as we have gone so long without it in these last few months and, on balance, the advantages might outweigh the disadvantages. The real question is – should it be consigned to the pages of corporate history?

If you’ve enjoyed our blog on remote working, take a look at the following blogs: