Will future workplaces become exclusive social clubs?

I killed her plant.

It was March 12, 2020. Travel was suspended to the U.S. from Europe. The World Health Organization announced 24 hours earlier that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic. And my boss told the biggest corporate lie in history; he said we’d be working remotely for two maybe three weeks. As I packed up my things, I decided the desk plant my girlfriend had gifted me could survive on its own. I mean we’d be back soon anyway… I left the plant behind––and, like my office, it was never seen or heard from again.

Remote work is a shape-shifting concept

The mass extinction of office plants is one of many unresolved questions keeping remote workers up at night. As we enter the “oh my god, this is actually happening” phase of vaccine rollouts, we’re collectively left to predict what’s next. Some are highly optimistic about the future. Remote work has been a blessing, revealing the outdated flaws tech-savvy employees have been pointing out for years. 

For others, remote work is a dystopian nightmare. From a lack of at-home tech and space to dogs barking in the background of Zoom meetings to unrealistic schedules, they’re counting down the seconds until they can get back into an office. 

As Nicole Zack, Senior Designer at NELSON Worldwide, told Ladders in a recent interview, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution: “The future of the workplace is evolving to a bespoke model of tailored office space catered to your needs of the day. With individuals having the ability to choose how and where to work, the office space will be an experiential design to create connection to the company and foster trust among colleagues.”

In other words, no one has THE answer. And finding the “connection point” as Zack called it is going to take time. But the speculation is fun. So we’re throwing our hat into the ring with a few educated guesses on where the office is headed. 

Will it be like an exclusive social club, outfitted with a juice bar, peloton, and daycare? Will the office transform into a 24-hour creative space? 

Let’s find out. 

Reimagining the role of an office

Most companies are excited to bring employees back. Speaking from personal experience, I can’t wait to return to a daily rhythm separating home life and work. I’ve grown quite tired of silent hand signaling my girlfriend when I’m jumping on a Zoom call to avoid disrupting her Teams meeting. The kitchen counter no longer feels like an appropriate workspace. 

But I feel like I’m in the minority. 

According to a 2020 FlexJobs survey, 65% of respondents report wanting to be full-time remote employees post-pandemic. More surprisingly, 27% of workers say that the ability to work from home is so important to them that they are willing to take a 10% to 20% pay cut to work remotely.

So, how can employers change the attitude around offices? 

Zack believes adopting a hospitality mindset could be the solution. And we’re not talking about “flex hours” aka the hottest business phrase since “thought leadership.” 

Instead, employers should think about what an office can provide that we are unable to access at home. It could be new technology like digital whiteboards, different amenities, swapping desks and chairs with couches, better lighting, healthy food choices, or fitness equipment. 

During the lockdown, employees got used to working comfortably. I could go to the gym in the morning without worrying about missing the train, cook lunch while listening to a Zoom webinar, take a midday walk to get away from my desk.

How can the office replicate this experience and then make it more attractive? 

Office work and productivity 

Let’s be honest. CEOs, CMOs, C-Suite Executives––they mostly care about productivity. Yes, a lot of people are vocally raving about how productive they are at home. To the point of taking personal offense when someone suggests otherwise. I wrote an article offering some counterpoints to the popular pro remote work arguments a few months ago and got blasted in the comments. 

Amy Webb, Founder of Future Today Institute, believes things may eventually shift back as we favor collaboration in-person once it becomes a realistic option. Webb also doesn’t see virtual calls, events, and conferences sticking far beyond the pandemic––I don’t necessarily agree. 

But new processes and practices will begin to shape as this digital experience evolves. Would you be as inclined to work from home if the company implemented a rule that your Zoom had to be on for the entire nine hours? 

Zack pointed out another challenge with remote work. What are “on hours” versus “off hours”? How do you avoid alienating remote workers during meetings when there’s a group of individuals sitting next to each other? Then, what happens when the conversation carries over into the kitchen after the dial-in employees have signed off?

These are things we must consider. 

The final verdict 

There are two clear takeaways. 

  1. The office will never officially “die.” But we may never see it return in the same capacity. Employers need to consider what they can offer that employees can’t get at home. Why should I commute if I don’t have to? A kegerator and coffee machine might not be enough. 
  2. Every industry is going to have different policies. This conversation about remote work, the future of office space, and hybrid models tends to lump everyone into one category. I work for a marketing agency. Our leadership team probably won’t have the same ideas as an accounting firm.

With that said, I think offices will become more accommodating, open, and adaptable. We will continue seeing a shift to joint workspace with an emphasis on balance between time spent working at home and in the office.

Organizations hell-bent on retaining top talent will feel pressure to redesign their space, keeping health and individual productivity top of mind. I might work best in an open, creative environment.

You might require minimal distractions and quiet time. Again, we’re dealing with a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all situation. Regardless, I’m excited to see how innovative companies design their office space in the next three to five years.

What do you think?