This is a question that a few of my friends and colleagues have been asking. It’s a weird question to ask admittedly because I have been working from home for some years and cannot even contemplate ever going back to an office for the rest of my working life.
The period of the pandemic thrust people into a situation they had never encountered before and some had assumed that working from home was painful, stressful and created lots of upheaval in their family life. It’s true that it did but nevertheless, let’s not forget that this situation is not normal. When everything closes down, when we are not permitted to leave our homes, when the world is effectively inside – this is not about working from home. It’s about surviving the best we can with a global pandemic. In situations like this, certain truths confront us about not just our work but our family and social lives.
Before isolation, I had been chatting with various people who were looking forward to moving into new office spaces. Their companies had spent millions of dollars purchasing new office spaces or renovating old ones into activity-based spaces which were all the rage before the pandemic as business realised the need for office spaces to be more like comfortable spaces that allow for collaboration.
However, there were mixed messages about the success of open-plan offices. For me, I recall enjoying the opportunity to move around but it did bring more problems. I recall that I had serious back pain working from different back stations. It took at least 20 minutes every day to set up and pack up my equipment from my desk – or find a desk for that matter. I also felt unproductive due to the amount of noise wafting up from the cafe below, the steel, glass and concrete reverberating every noise. No wonder people wore headphones most of the time.
Melbourne is a growing city and there’s always a skyscraper being built and chatting with my friends, we wondered what it meant for office spaces from hereon. Knowing that our state government is still encouraging as many people to work from home, my belief is to lessen the burden on the public transport system and to minimise the packed trains which were a part of life for many people. Add to that the limited car parking spaces, road works and expensive car parking costs, it makes sense to stay at home. Also the office today has to abide by the different regulations to maintain physical distancing and ensuring employees are safe. In effect, the virus has changed everything about how we work and how we relate to the people we work within the physical spaces.
Questions about Workplaces
So my friends and I started chatting about the questions we had about the workplace and we asked ourselves:
- What’s the point of “going to” a workplace anyway?
- Why would I need to “go to” another workplace?
- Why would I spend my time commuting there and back?
- Why would I go if I cannot guarantee my fellow colleagues would be there (because they may be working from home or on different hours or in different time zones?) I’m working “alone” now, why would I want to be “alone” in an office?
These questions made me sit and ponder about this dilemma of vast amounts of office spaces in the city sitting vacant and probably will be unused for a while. What about the companies who have invested already in office space and facing employees saying, “yeah, thanks but no thanks – don’t need to go into the office anymore!”
I understand that many peoples situations are different. Some do not have space, time or the freedom to work from home. Others may have some “ethical” principle of making work and home separate. Others may not have access to good internet or technology to be able to work from home. These situations aside the question can be asked that “given that we can work anytime, anywhere, anyhow and on any device, why do we need a “physical office” at all?”
Also, does that “physical office” look like an office we’re so used to today?
What would make me get up, travel for an hour and back into town for the purposes to do my work in “another place”.
The answer for me would be….it wouldn’t be for work but it would be for something else.
To feel part of a community.
Over the many years of writing this blog, I have written lots of posts about “Third Places” – spaces where people commune and in fact, I even created a Meetup group of the same name where a group of individuals who had an interest in learning and networking met at cafes, restaurants, libraries and we even did excursions to various different workplaces. The group died down over the last couple of years simply because work and life got in the way but the idea of third places has never left my mind.
In a way I’m seeing the third place idea now becoming even stronger and more relevant and I’m beginning to wonder if in future, the office is less about WORK and more about LIFE & COMMUNITY.
As more people lose ties and connections with their families and communities, (and I anticipate that coming out of covid there’s going to be many people with some form of low-grade post-traumatic stress syndrome) we will need spaces where we can gather with people we trust and have spaces to reflect, to learn new things, to be part of groups and communities. Our colleagues are now becoming more part of our communities especially if we have no other interests or family or connections outside of work. My assumption is that companies will start to look at ways of building, nurturing and helping people create communities of meaning for them and provide the space in which to do so.
So if I was to dream about a workplace that would make me go into town it would be a place that looks like and does the following:
- A variety of bookable spaces (all free) of different sizes where I can attend classes or conduct my own classes to peers (shared learning experiences where peers are the teachers)
- Different community spaces where I can join different clubs of interest or learn new skills (music, art, anything really – and I can start my own clubs)
- Lab spaces with computers so that I can take a class or test things out with people
- State of the art kitchens to cook in and prepare great meals
- Private areas for reflection
- Gymnasium and classes
- Access to counselling services or other services if needed such as medical, dental
- Restaurants and cafes where teams can gather for impromptu meals or have pop up meals with others in the spirit of eating together
- Lots of green spaces – maybe an urban farm I can work in
- Free childcare and pet care facilities
- Library to borrow books
- Artworks and other creations from employees around the building
- Lots of different events for learning, connecting, socialising
- Excursions and trip aways to other country sites and events that include employees and their families
- Exchange programs with other employees overseas
- Be aligned with and support Not-For-Profits and have programs where I can volunteer my time or efforts to them supported by my company (and have the NFP use the space available)
- Guest presenters and key speakers run presentations there that I can attend, watch (provided with free tea and coffee and great spread of yummy desserts by the company).
- Free massages!
I see these “work spaces” as being merely “gathering places” for respite and community and not mainly for work. Sure, I can bring in my laptop and do a bit of work but the aim to travel into town would be akin to the old private lounges of the past where you could go (when I want) and meet up with people.
These places weren’t spaces to do work – they were spaces for connections and socialising.
Would the Future Workplace be the New Private Clubs?
Many years ago, I was in the Navy and we had the “wardroom” which was a space we could relax, eat a meal, read a paper, chat with colleagues, have a drink, meet up. Ok, added to that some events such as mess dinners and Trafalgar nights which tended to get messy with the drinking and the parlour games but I loved it. There was always lots of laughter and camaraderie.
These spaces were critical for my sanity where I could go every morning for breakfast, take a quick morning and afternoon tea and go for a decent sit-down lunch. It provided a place of camaraderie before going back to work – a mental break with a dose of social chit chat. These lounges continued although they were mainly for the elite such as Melbourne’s Athenaeum Club (it’s amazing inside) and the Melbourne Club.
I’m wondering if these new workplaces will now be like the private clubs of old – but with a new spin, a more inclusive, open, accepting, contemporary and family-focused spaces based on your employment with the organisation as opposed to your bank account or your family background?
So what do you think? What would make you change your routine now that you’re working from home to go back into the “physical office”? Or am I just dreaming?