Will coronavirus end the tyranny of the “office”?
Necessity is often the mother of invention. From the wristwatch to the baguette, extreme events drive changes in technology and in personal habits. Yet the world of office working has broadly remained the same for over two centuries.
Over that time we’ve seen the quill replaced by the typewriter; the typewriter usurped by the computer; pay packets yield to direct debits and desks displaced by the ‘hot-desking space’.
Despite all these incremental changes the office space has remained sacrosanct, with millions of people leaving their homes and travelling long distances for the privilege of sitting in front of a marginally smaller screen than the one in the building they had recently left.
So ingrained in our daily lives is the office that our entire transport system, tax system and even food systems are geared towards the immutable fact that millions of people need to “go to work”.
Whilst there is merit in meeting in a shared building, much of what office workers do could easily be done from a PC anywhere in the globe. Some of it already is. A quick Google search for the term ‘Digital Nomad’ shows that.
This is certainly the case in the public affairs industry. When I started out two decades ago, firms like Barndoor Strategy needed to be near Westminster. The reason was simple. It wasn’t just access to parliament but access to information.
The Parliamentary Bookshop was the all-important source of the printed copy of Hansard. I can still remember the distinctive smell of the ink as I collected a copy every morning on the way to the office. Even when Hansard went online, the printed copy still served as a faster reference. If you began your career in the 1990s, the chances are the stock tools of trade included scissors, pritt stick and a trusty fax machine.
But over the last two decades, broadband internet has become almost ubiquitous across the country and innovations like tablets, lightweight laptops, cloud storage, and video conferencing mean most of us carry around a modern-day office in our pocket or bag.
Some firms have anticipated this change. They have policies for home working and they’ve reduced the number of desks on the premises. Yet until last week, the prevailing culture has been one of presenteeism.
Then everything changed.
Overnight Coronovirus has forced people to work from home. Firms large and small have been forced to press the button on these “home working” polices, whether they want to or not. Many IT systems and servers have already been stressed beyond breaking point. When the glitches are ironed out and as weeks turn into months, the home-working culture is going to get more and more ingrained. Season tickets will have been cancelled; workers will be sleeping in later rather than cramming themselves onto tube trains, and everyone will be much more adept at using software like Microsoft Teams.
Workers will realise there are more hours in the day and better ways to spend their time than crushed onto a rush-hour train. Bosses will realise that their staff can be trusted and will be productive even if they aren’t in the office. They might even notice how much money they can save without having to rent, light, and heat expensive office space in big cities.
At Barndoor Strategy we already operate on this model.
Like many similar lean start-ups we’re a 21st century digital business. We use technology to link teams of experts together to deliver for our clients what traditional bricks-and-mortar firms do from that expensive central London office. We can not only do it cheaper, we can do it better as we are not geographically constrained by the daily commuting distance from London.
If many other businesses from all walks of life choose to follow our lead, it could have profound implications, not just for the world of work, but for the wider economy, the UK’s transport infrastructure, and the environment.
One thing is for sure, post-coronavirus, many things in the UK will never be the same again. The world of the office worker may well be one of them.
Despite the disruption caused by coronavirus for Barndoor Strategy it is still very much business as usual. If we can help you with your business, please get in touch.