It’s no secret; we are in the grip of a major transition. Intergovernmental organizations, including health agencies and travel bodies, are working to control the spread of coronavirus and the associated illness, COVID-19. The health crisis poses a major disruption to almost every aspect of life. So what does this mean for the future of the office? When COVID-19 is finally contained, will working from home (WFH) disappear with it?
The pre-COVID-19 work-from-home landscape
Of course, many businesses can’t offer an option to work from home. Machine operators, trades workers and service workers require direct access to customers or specialized equipment. But since the advent of high-speed broadband, many roles can now be performed from home.
So why did a 2019 National Compensation Survey from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics find that only 7% of civilian workers in the U.S. have the option to work from home? Prior to the spread of COVID-19, businesses’ preference for the office stemmed from concerns about the impact of a new work model on business continuity.
This attitude was reinforced by office evangelicals who argued that true collaboration only comes with physical interaction. Detractors of WFH models are now highlighting stories of isolated employees and overbearing managers in China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
But, as we’ve seen with the rise of streaming services and ride-hailing apps, access to a digital space can be as good, if not better, than its physical counterpart. The proliferation of digital collaboration tools proves you don’t need to share the same space to work together effectively.
Distributed teams mean agile business practices
In addition to the cost of renting or owning a workspace, an office comes with major expenses. Between heating, lighting, power, equipment and amenities, the costs add up. That’s before you consider the cost to your employees of commuting.
But the real cost here lies in decreased productivity, thanks to endless meetings, office politics and watercooler distractions. It’s no wonder a 2018 study found that we work an average of two hours and 53 minutes in an eight-hour workday.
In contrast, working from home can actually boost productivity. In a 2017 Flexjobs survey, 75% of people said they were more productive working from home due to fewer distractions. With fewer diversions and clear direction, your team can focus on completing tasks.
Flexible working can limit localized dangers
Even when COVID-19 is contained, businesses should consider alternatives to the office. To require everyone to attend the same space every day is to put all your eggs in one figurative basket. Besides the risk of spreading illness between staff members, there are a host of other potential pitfalls.
The devastation of Hurricane Sandy wasn’t limited to those directly caught in its path. A report by the U.S. Small Business Administration found that 52% of small and medium-sized businesses in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut and the surrounding areas experienced a loss of sales or revenue because of the storm.
Of course, even working from home, some of your team will experience connection issues. Additionally, there’s always the risk of exposure to illness, but working as a distributed team limits the scale of that risk. Even if some members of your team fall ill or lose connection, you can continue to operate in some capacity.
Flexible work expands your talent pool
Regardless of your objectives, diversity is essential to the balance of your team. Studies have shown that performance and team morale increase when businesses incorporate a wide range of voices in decision-making. Businesses have begun to recognize that diversity is essential to knowledgeable, dynamic teams.
Despite this, many workplaces are unable to diversify their teams due to the nature of their location. The reality is that the majority of your team will be found in surrounding areas, which can limit diversity. But when you find talent from across geographic boundaries, it paves the way for a better balance within your business and society.
In defense of offices
So, is there still a place for the office in a post-COVID-19 world? Of course there is. Even with huge advances in technology, there will always be a need to bring people together. It’s easy to socialize through technology alone, but face-to-face interaction is still essential. In addition, organizations working with sensitive information benefit from a secure, centralized space.
But do businesses need a full-time dedicated space to work effectively? The numbers suggest not. We’re already seeing this transition take place; the number of flexible workspace locations expanded by 205% while the number of operators grew by 138% between 2014 and 2019.
There’s no way of knowing exactly how the COVID-19 outbreak will change office culture, but it’s clear that “the great work-from-home experiment” will have a lasting impact on the way we work. While some will eagerly return to their offices when isolation measures are relaxed, many more will choose to keep their teams at home.
Natalie Ruiz is the CEO at AnswerConnect. She’s passionate about helping the world work anywhere and leads a distributed global team.
Empty office stock photo by zhu difeng/Shutterstock