April 14, 2021 • Workplace5 min read

You need an office, but not an office

The role of the office is changing. In this article, our Managing Director Matt Ephgrave talks about how the office should be a place of collaboration, spontaneity, and creativity, rather than just a space filled with functional desks and silent, heads-down employees.

There’s a lot of talk right now about “back to the office” and the return to work. I should know, we’ve just published a big report on it. However, when people hear “office” there’s still a Pavlovian response, immediately conjuring up images of a traditional desk. We’ve fallen back into that way of thinking despite the fact that the office stopped being “that place” a long time ago.

One of the many things that the pandemic has done is change the way companies think about the space they need, versus the space they have. Asking questions such as, ‘what purpose does it serve?’, and ‘what is it there for?’. The chances are that most of us were already using the office in the way that we believe future offices will be, but our thinking of what an office is keeps us rooted in the stereotypical image of an office building from the 90’s.

But the office will never be that again, and by that definition, will never be “an office” again. 

The office is dead, long live the office. 

The office as we have known it actually started in the 18th century, and it hasn’t really changed that much since then. It’s effectively a space where people come together and get admin done.

Pay attention to part of that last sentence - a space where people come together.

What has changed, and will continue to change, especially in a post-lockdown world is why people are coming together. To understand that a bit more we need to have a look at what the office was pre-COVID-19.

Before we all started working from home, the role of the office had already started to change. It was just changing slowly, perhaps in an imperceivable way. The likes of Google, Facebook and other silicon valley alumni, were paving the way for new office standards in the early noughties. The office was transforming into somewhere where it was an easy, and in a lot of cases, pleasant place to spend your time.

Want food? Sure, here’s a canteen.
Want to take a break? Sure, here’s a quiet room.
Want to exercise? Have a gym.
Want to live here? Here’s showers, bathrooms, a creche (for baby or pet), laundry facilities...

The list could go on. 

It would be naive to think that every business with an office followed suit in quick succession, but most businesses realised that to compete for talent, they had to expand their office perks as well as improve the general environment. Regardless of if you've got any work perks, the office still had to be a nice place to visit.

Along with this, the office space itself started to fundamentally change. If the offices of the '80s were defined as a specific place for all employees to do admin; then offices this side of the millennium could be anywhere: a Starbucks, the train, dare we say it, your own home. So if the office was, or is, anywhere - then perhaps the need to rename the buildings we all think of as “offices” is the question we should be asking. These traditional office buildings started changing to hubs. Hot-desking became much more the norm in large agencies as desk utilisation studies showed that people just weren’t using desks in the way they used to. It begs the question that if people weren’t at their desks, but they were in the office what were they doing? 

Mobile phones have also played a significant role in this change. With the rise of workplace messaging and Intranet systems (Slack for example), even if you’re not at your desk, you're never away. Your laptop can go with you wherever you need, your '90s tower PC couldn’t.

The simple truth is before COVID-19 hit we were spending most of time in the “office”, but not necessarily at our desks. We were in meeting rooms, in break out spaces, in walking meetings (big fan of these), in the kitchen or any other various communal areas. Admin got done at the end of the day, or on the train commute, or on your work-from-home day where you wouldn’t be disturbed. 

The office wasn’t really an office any more, it was a collaboration space - and that hasn’t changed. In fact, the speed of change has only increased.

So from now on when I write “office”, don’t think desk, don’t think Michael Scott or David Brent. Instead think spontaneity, creativity, positivity, solutions, innovation, and people coming together.

As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, without this space for people to come back together, to re-socialise, to collaborate, it will take all facets of life longer to return to something more “normal”. Up until this last year, we spent most of our working lives together with colleagues, forming friendships, partnerships and generally being human. Giving up on the office entirely means giving up on a part of what helps shape us, simply put, post-it-sized faces on Zoom will not, cannot, replace that. 

So as you start to think about whether you should open your office, whether you still need to have an office, or what the office does - perhaps instead you should think about what the office actually is, and how this space can help get your people back together feeling a bit more human again.