We are entering the “Remote First” Era

We are currently all at an experiment at an unprecedented scale – home work. And as the pandemic is thought to accelerate a number of trends such as the digitization of businesses, when it comes to working however the main opinion is still that businesses return to the pre-pandemic state of an office centered enterprise, albeit with some relaxation of home office policies.

But it might be just about time to rethink the way we collaborate and what role an office should take.

Over the last few years it became clear that employee engagement is the key to performance and retention. A study by Gallup showed in 2018 that only 34% of American workers feel engaged at their workplace.

At the same time telecommuting is on the raise since 2005, in Switzerland 9 out of 10 employees telecommute for instance, most not in the same village they live according to the latest statistics. This dramatically reduces the time available to live as labour laws regulate the hours employees have to spend at work.

This led to an increased demand for office spaces at a prime location aiming to ease the burden of telecommuting but at the same time often accompanied by – particularly service oriented companies – to centralise locations aiming to reduce fixed cost.

How offices evolved over time

A single building for one company was the origin of the office we know today. With the british empire expanding, trade booming a massive amount of paperwork had to be handled. “The Old Admiralty Office” became probably the worlds first office with a centralised collaboration and single office to serve the idea that intellectual work requires separation from other people.

With Taylor’s approach in the early 20th century to maximise industrial efficiency together with the first skyscrapers, workplaces slowly began to change into open spaces but still cramped places, in some cases even with a dedicated kitchen or a canteen. Office buildings started to host more than one company.

This was probably the birth of office design where for the first time human aspects were taken into consideration, such as Frank Lloyds office in the 1940, still hosting over 200 staff but with high ceilings, warm lights and considering office acoustics.

After the World War II companies started to adopt more socially democratic layouts that encouraged human interaction and engagement – which later became to know as “Burolandschaft” (German origin). 

This evolved over time in settings that reflected specific tasks (action office) but included a number of alternative work settings for staff. One of the notable developments was the introduction and use of dedicated meeting rooms. As employees asked for more privacy the model evolved eventually into cubicles, or also known as as cubicle farms.

In the last 20 years the technology workers became more mobile and the office slowly gained more flexibility, friendliness and started to lend design elements from the home. Hot desks were invented where employees weren’t allocated space but would pick a seat in the locations they work from. 

This finally evolved into a state we have now where companies fancy themselves having the coolest and hippest office with a high degree of flexibility. The offices started to mock “home” even more as they ever have before..

The new normal and its benefits

With the common experience we now make on the benefits and limitations of enforced remote work one thing is for sure, we will go back to normal but to a new normal. And it is time to re-think what this might be. I will put forward to hypothesis

  1. It is sufficient to be co-located for even as less as 20%
  2. Offices in future become inherently less important if not redundant

Face to Face meetings will be still very important.

Face to Face meetings and gatherings will still be very important as they facilitate the trust between colleagues and are probably most effective to create lasting bonds. Design and brainstorming activities are still primed to held physically together for an efficient outcome. At the same time a face to face meeting is not required to get the work done. A recent study by McKinsey showed for technical teams that a co-located team between 20-40% seems to achieve an optimum between quality of work delivered and speed to finish the task.

The office’s main purpose of giving the employee space to perform a task has vanished thanks to advanced technology. Already known multinational companies form teams that spread across locations that rarely see each other in person – and still work on the same goal and perform. This will imply in future that companies will either have smaller offices at multiple locations – hosting small “tribes” of employees – or abandon them altogether in favour of co-working spaces that might be rented based on a per use policy.

We recommend

  1. Technology is the enabler. Not less but also not more. Think through and change your tech stack to support remote collaboration but still honour data security. Make sure you have secure communication in place for both voice and video. Consider additional tools that enable asynchronous communication and online collaboration.
  2. Establish best practices in a virtual environment. Companies have a heartbeat and a common understanding of how to achieve stuff. In a virtual world this is more important than even in the absence of a natural social system. Establish a set of rules, exchange with your employees around best practices.
  3. Bring employees together with a purpose. Schedule regular onsite meetings that serve your company’s purpose and include fun and time for spontaneous encounters and exchanges. Offsite/Out of office is the new normal that has some tremendous advantage of making your employees experience one of a kind.

What’s next

As the distributed company becomes reality, the conventional company thinking strict boundaries will need to be replaced in favour of a flexible and nimble collaboration approach between employees but also between companies.