They say necessity is the mother of invention, and there’s no doubting the creative endeavour so many workplace and facilities managers have engaged in over recent weeks. And now, as government guidance loosens, thoughts turn from mitigation measures to wider reappraisals. For office-based organisations, the questions are revolutionary. What volume of office space will we need? What has changed irrevocably? Will we ever go back to the way things were before?
Pre-Covid, the enthusiasm for remote working, powered by video calls and communication tools, could be offset by a preference for old-school line-of- sight management. The coronavirus has surely enlightened business to remote working’s genuine viability.
As for returning to the office, intractable issues include how to manage washroom queues and (ironically) how to police all those carefully crafted yet temporarily redundant collaboration spaces. Suggested solutions are legion, as evidenced in our coverage this month.
Beyond an initial focus on distancing, will output-based management, anathema to so many before March, survive the powerful countervailing effects of human nature?
Twenty years’ development of devices and infrastructure has made the grand concept of ‘the death of distance’ – proposed in the 1990s as a principal benefit of the nascent internet - more achievable than ever. The idea is that with all this kit to help us, why would anyone need to travel to meet or work with anyone else?
Yet human nature continues to work against this idea. Remote working may suit established teams and workflows, but the initial spark of business, its broader ebb and flow, demands physical presence. The office also empowers the kind of serendipitous interaction which, whether experienced operationally or strategically, is the business world’s ‘dark matter’ – impossible to explain yet fundamental to how business is conducted.
Just as the internet did not lead to the death of the exhibition, conference or other form of business meeting place, so the coronavirus will not kill off offices. My view? Changing business structures will ultimately see existing workspace occupied by more and smaller organisations. Whatever the outcome, this great workplace experiment has, in fact, only just begun.
Martin Read is editor of Facilitate Magazine