The health crisis has raised many questions regarding the head office and its role as a central and symbolic entity. It has highlighted ways of working differently, thanks in a part to the number of digital tools we now have at our fingertips.
However, we must question what the sociological consequences of this new reality are? Is it possible to seamlessly combine working in-person and remote working in the months and years to come? How can we rethink the organisational structure of a company while maintaining well-being, confidence, and productivity at work?
The health crisis as an accelerator of new practices
Working from home has enjoyed both a growth spurt and mixed success in recent years. Whilst many sing its praises, it has left some managers and employees perplexed, anxious to maintain daily contact with their teams. However, like any new practice, its acceptance has had to be gradual, in line with the rolling out of new digital tools. The health crisis has shaken up our habits, and with no time for a transition period, we had to react quickly. This forced many companies to stop reflecting on whether remote working was effective and instead put it into immediate effect.
The unprecedented circumstances linked to the lockdown forced companies to adapt and to deploy substantial resources to overcome initial difficulties. I think that this episode has only further highlighted the breaking down of our traditional workspace. Today, of course, it is not the time to talk about peaceful and organised remote working, but instead about how lockdown has forced us to work. We have been required to stay at home, sometimes in small spaces or having to look after children and not necessarily with the tools or the ideal surface to work on. Not all companies were ready but then neither were many people’s homes. This experience cannot, therefore, be representative but for many, we were able to continue our activity, maintain our meetings and find a daily rhythm in spite of everything.
Now as many countries across Europe step tentatively out of lockdown, we will really be able to test the idea of remote working on a large scale. Within a framework of social distancing measures, some will return to the office and others will stay at home. The perception of the office, housing, transport and the head office will shift, along with how we interact with them.
Towards more remote working after lockdown?
While large companies had already established the necessary resources to allow employees to work from home, smaller companies were forced to adapt and find solutions in order to allow their business to continue. Now we can say that these processes have been put in place and that a milestone has been reached across our society. By digitalising so much of our work, many companies were able to quickly train those who were not necessarily comfortable with these types of practices. I think that the conditions have now been planted and that this trend will continue to take root.
Recent crises have shown the need to be able to work from home, to anticipate certain problems related to the climate, social movements, or transport problems. The comfort inherent to the home office has been championed, as we consider the time not spent on commuting, which brings real comfort and considerable time-saving. Companies are going to have to reinvent their office spaces and new forms of communication should become a sustainable part of the future. Managers are also going to have to manage their teams remotely, develop new ways of organisation, bringing many opportunities.
Third Places and the Hybridisation of Spaces
Before the health crisis, the strategy was to maximise space and encourage collaboration in a flexible way. The company building was seen as the centre, where people converged and communicated. Flexible office space emerged as a way of blurring the boundaries between individualised office space and collaborative areas. Today, it is unthinkable to work in such a populated way.
Will we return to dedicated spaces and more traditional office design? Quite the contrary! If we work two to three days a week from home, we will see new hybrid spaces blossom that have yet to be invented. These will be neither residential spaces, nor offices, nor hotels, but a merging of all of this at the same time, third places in short. Co-working spaces, in partnership with head offices, will also have to adapt, they will have an important role to play and will have to offer new forms in line with health issues and the new needs of employees.
The new functions of the company building
Remote working is central to our future, but only if it is supervised and structured. This is where the company building plays a major role. It remains a place of socialisation, training, reference points and identity, and offers the tools that we simply can’t have at home. The office building - and all the more so the head office - is in a way how the company showcases itself, it is a place where employees, service providers, customers, trainees and new recruits converge. It is a place that attracts new talent and investors; a crossroads of opportunities. That doesn't mean that offices will offer less square metres, but, if I dare say so, "better square metres".
We will have to take advantage of these renewed spaces for a more enhanced and inspiring service approach. Nothing can replace contact; non-verbal communication, those spontaneous social cues that make it possible to obtain information, to follow up with a colleague, to organise a short impromptu meeting, to respond to a problem and to make concrete progress on a task. Work is a place of exchange, emotions and experience, which only the company building can truly offer.