I’ve seen a lot of posts about how the traditional office isn’t dead, how everyone will return to their workplace once we’re through the crisis. Then I’ve seen other posts suggesting that office space will never be the same and that the traditional office is a thing of the past.
My sense, from reading these posts, is that there are a lot of folks talking their own positions. Brokers, owners, and others in the real estate industry want to believe that things will go back to the way they were before Covid-19. And the people stating that the office is dead are either reacting to the current frustration of paying rent when nobody is in the office (See Nationwide, Barclays, WPP, etc) or are employees that had previously wanted to work from home but their employers wouldn’t allow it. (As an aside, I feel like the drumbeat of work-from-home is loudest from writers, which I guess isn’t surprising.)
Where do I come down on this? I think once we’re through the Covid-19 crisis, it will be back to the office for most employees. Not because working at an office is great, but because most managers aren’t.
Managing people is hard. Managers need to keep everyone focused, ensure that projects are moving in the right direction, maintain morale, and be able to accurately report what’s happening up the command chain. Its hard enough to do that when everyone is in the same office. It’s harder still when a manager has to cover multiple offices. And I would imagine that its almost impossible to accomplish when everyone is working from home.
Effective management is elusive. And selecting competent managers is difficult. Corporate America is rife with over-promotion (or “The Peter Principle” which says that people tend to be promoted until they rise to “their level of incompetence.”) Managers have a hard enough time when they can interact with their staff organically and in person. Doing so when every dialogue needs to be scheduled and set up with a zoom call doubles the challenge.
The same is true of employees. I would guess that self-motivated workers are doing fine as they work remotely. And they appreciate the freedom and flexibility to do their work as they see fit. Employees that aren’t quite as diligent are also enjoying the additional freedom but probably aren’t as productive as they would be if they were at the office. (Employers recognize this and have started to look to technology to keep their workers accountable.)
Many people are working from home successfully. But we are also doing it while in lockdown with people unable to leave their homes. Will people be as focused and diligent when there isn’t a crisis to rally against? Will people be as accountable when its easier to run out to lunch, or the gym, or do some errands if they have those options? There is going to be a long shakeout from the Covid crisis. And it’s going to take some time before we’re able to see the future. And just like every crisis, a lot of things are going to change. We’ll all have to find out what happens together.