Opinion | The future’s call is to work from anywhere and not just home3 min read . Updated: 12 Jun 2020, 05:12 AM IST
We may have seen the last of the classic office but this need not mean that your house will replace it
My last column in Mint (‘The Great Decentralization that coronavirus has heralded’, 29 May) was about how the covid pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have catalysed a great decentralization across multiple sectors, organisations and even societies. But nowhere has this phenomenon been more visible than in work. Work from home (WFH) has not only become a business reality, but also a lifestyle statement. Everyone everywhere is sitting in yoga pants, staring goggle-eyed at screens, and the array of Zoom windows has become iconic of how work is now done.
Interestingly, the same people who used to wax eloquent on how great office spaces were in fostering collaboration, productivity and innovation, are now standing on housetops to proclaiming the demise of the same. Twitter has said that WFH is permanent now, Tata Consultancy Services wants 75% of its gigantic workforce to work from home, and Facebook expects half its workforce to work from home in a few years.
It might be an interesting piece of news for Mark Zuckerberg that more than half of America’s workforce worked remotely even before the covid crisis struck the world. They might travel to a central office for occasional meetings and appointments, but predominantly they were not in office. In fact, the status of the office as a place central to work was diminishing ever so slowly, as the Future of Work called for a more democratic working order. It is just that the pandemic has greatly hastened it. In a curious paradox, the current crisis has slowed down the world, but accelerated change.
A delightful article by Catherine Nixey that appeared in 1843, a features magazine of The Economist, titled ‘The Death of the Office’, talks about how the office is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in the 20th century, that “the people who had once designed factories turned their attention to offices"; “The moving parts in these machines were humans and their output merely paper but, it was reasoned, the same principles surely applied." In fact, Nixey says, the Romans had no concept of the office. “Their tablets and styluses were every bit as portable as our own, a feature that elite Romans took full advantage of. Two thousand years ago, Pliny the Younger said that he had found a splendid new method of working. Instead of going about his business at a desk, he had decided that day to combine it with a boar hunt. He concluded that this was a remarkably productive way to work since “the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise". He concluded by advising, “whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you"."
The Romans, according to Mary Beard, a Cambridge University professor, reversed our current construct of leisure being a state in which you are not working. They called the normal state of play otium. Only when you were not at leisure, and were doing business, was it the opposite of that, negotium. Whatever the case may have been with Romans, what is going to happen to the way we work after the covid disruption? I predict three big changes.
One is that the office is not going to go away, but it will change greatly. As Nixey continues, “Humans need offices. Work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing. No Skype chat can replicate what Heatherwick calls the “chemistry of the unexpected" that you get in person." So, I believe that we will work in a hybrid manner, a proportion of our work time in office, and the rest elsewhere. Hopefully, this will have other benefits—less traffic, cleaner air, easier commutes. I also believe that this will result in decentralized offices, where rather than having one massive central office building or campus, companies will have smaller offices or pods distributed across the city, spanning the places where people actually live.
Second, co-working spaces will also get decentralized. They will be a collection of standardized desks and infrastructure that links people’s homes to a range of meeting rooms at central locations. This change has already begun.
Finally, I do not believe that we are transitioning to a work-from-home-only environment. The world will more likely move to WFA, or a work-from-anywhere scenario. The “anywhere" could be your home, an office, a neighbourhood park, a closeby coffee shop, or even a co-working space. This was what the Future of Work had promised. The pandemic has simply fast forwarded that.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and co-founder of Unqbe