COVID-19 - Reinventing the Office

The Corona pandemic forced entire workforces to abruptly become remote. But what if lockdown ends? Are we going to take our remote experience and reinvent what the office should be?

April 20, 2020
productivity consultancy life corona

For well over a month now, many companies have been transitioning to a mandatory fully-remote organization. Some companies are doing great, while other companies are still struggling to make ‘Business Unusual’ become ‘Business As Usual’. For me personally, this new reality isn’t all that bad. The home office is doing its job, with separate desks for work and play. Pair programming is now actually a bit more comfortable, with a bit more personal space ;-) Meanwhile screen sharing or VSCode Live Share handle the heavy lifting. Even remote whiteboarding is now a pretty nice experience, using my iPad Pro as a (small) whiteboard, that I can share over the internet.

I’m also much more productive, if I take ‘focus time’. At the office it would mean locking myself in some ‘focus room’ without a proper monitor setup, and with very little space, but at home I can just mute my Slack, close the door, and get stuff done for a few hours.

And then there’s work-life balance. I went from a 4-hour daily commute to about 20 seconds. I can take breaks in the garden. I can turn my music up. I can noodle on my guitar if I get stuck. And I can fit in my training rides whenever it’s most convenient (currently: in the morning).

So, it’s great? Well, I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I miss having real-life interaction with people from time to time, instead of talking to pixelated webcam images of what may be my coworkers. Having work at home makes it difficult to draw a hard line between work and life, although I’m trying. And also, working at an office makes it more fun to get home again. Discussions take longer, explaining complex matters takes even longer than that. As much as working remotely is nice, sometimes real interactions with real people are just better.

But there are definitely things I don’t miss from the pre-Corona days, and things from this ‘new normal’ that I’d love to keep once the Corona pandemic blows over.

What is the purpose of an office, anyway?

You may have guessed it, but I’m not a big fan of stuffing a bunch of people in an office to ‘work’. I hate open office plans with a passion. Often introduced as ‘enabling open communication and organic collaboration’ it pretty much without exception becomes a chaotic space where 90% of the people are wearing noise-cancelling in headphones to actually prevent this ‘open communication’ (interruptions, small talk) and ‘organic collaboration’ (more interruptions) and actually get some stuff done. I don’t want to commute for 4 hours to sit in a noisy office and needing to block out everyone in order to get my work done.

To me, an office is a place for collaboration. To meet with people, to be creative together and create ideas. Whiteboarding or stick-note sessions are simply better when everyone is physically (standing) in the same room. Meetings, especially on ‘softer’ subjects, are a lot easier in-person. So to me, the post-Corona office should have a lot more ‘collaboration spaces’. Rooms with whiteboards, focused on primarily standing up (active posture) instead of sitting/slouching (passive posture). I would happily sacrifice a good portion of the current ‘open office plan’ to these collaboration spaces.

So, where do all the desks go?

If we have successfully eradicated the open-office-sweatshop, you may wonder where you’d sit down and write your code in this post-Corona office. Well, I wouldn’t personally remove all the desks. After all, it may be useful to get some coding in between meetings. But I’ve found that work that I need to do by myself is most efficiently done in my home office. And since we’ve been getting good at ‘being remote’ lately, that shouldn’t be an issue at all.

Now, the argument can be made that you can’t plan for creativity, and a lot of the work we do is actually creative work. Whether it is actually designing things, or coming up with inventive marketing strategies, or solving complex software or infrastructure problems; they all require our creative thinking. And it’s true, sometimes creativity strikes at unexpected moments. And that’s fine. If I quickly want to discuss a spur-of-the-moment idea with a colleague, I’ll just message them, have a quick videocall, share a digital whiteboard, and let creativity happen. But I’ll also plan a follow-up meeting at the office where we can move forward on the train of thought in a slightly more organized manner. And with an office that allows for that, everyone wins.

Climate change

Before we got punched in the face by this pandemic, there was another global issue in need of serious action: Climate Change. So how does this post-Corona office fit in there? There would be multiple benefits:

  • Working from home is no longer an exception, but a core component of how we work. This means less commuting (because there’s no requirement to go to the office every day), which reduces our carbon footprint.
  • If we primarily use the office for meetings and collaboration, there’s no need to commute during rush hour. This creates a more even spread of traffic, reducing traffic jams
  • Offices can be smaller, and require less equipment

Will it happen?

That, of course, is the million dollar question. We’ll have to wait and see. But as Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. We have a great opportunity here to reinvent how we work, how we commute, and what offices even should be. And have a positive impact on climate change and our own health in the process. Let’s not waste that by going back to pre-Corona days.

The only way is forward.