Office Space. It’s now more than just the title of a great movie, it’s one of the major concerns of working life after COVID-19. With so many people now working from home–and that sort of workplace flexibility almost certainly continuing on a more-or-less permanent basis–there is a big question around what will happen to the old-fashioned office tower.
With so many companies having shifted their workers to home offices, there is a lot of office space currently going underutilized or completely unused right now. Tumbleweeds have been blowing through empty corridors the past couple of months. Desks have been gathering dust. The good old boardroom table and meeting room have been replaced with tele-conferences taking place on monitors in homes across the nation.
All of this real estate is awfully expensive to own, operate, and maintain. Yet things have changed. Dramatically. As much as I love the movie Office Space, I have a feeling that it will look awfully dated the next time I get around to watching Peter, Samir, and Lawrence destroy that copier. The once depressingly familiar corporate way of life shown in the movie–which was oddly staying current despite being over two decades old now–has changed forever.
So, what happens next?
Probably a variety of things. Many companies have invested a great deal in their office complexes, so it’s hard to see them completely walking away. There is great evidence of this even in our neck of the woods near Ottawa, with a number of major companies expanding their bricks-and-mortar footprint dramatically in recent years to house an ever-expanding number of employees. That is going to be hard to simply pull back from, especially when corporate culture is also wrapped up in those offices.
What is coming could be seen as a battle between employer and employee. Now that the average office employee has seen the benefits of working from home, it will be difficult to simply issue a call to come back in May or June. People are enjoying the greater work-life balance, the ability to sleep in, the way that the morning commute is now a 15-second walk into a home office instead of an hour of sheer hell on a highway or crammed into a bus or train, and so forth. Good luck expecting workers to just forget all of that and arrive bright and early on Monday morning as soon as governments give the all-clear signal.
COVID-19 is also still out there. Even when society opens up again, it will be by gradual stages, and things won’t just bounce back to normal. For starters, we don’t know what normal will look like. We may all be talking about this new normal, but nobody has a clue what that actually means. There are some certainties, however. Health concerns will remain. Fear will remain. Employees will insist on greater flexibility in working arrangements. Moms and dads will demand changes, as they will certainly not want to bring home a potentially deadly virus from the cubicle farm.
Employers will have to acknowledge these new realities. We’ll see that first with changes to offices overall. Expect more social distancing within work environments. Some of this will take the form of greater space between desks, six chairs around a big boardroom table instead of 20, that sort of thing. Hotdesking will become more popular, with workers sharing space on alternating days. Cleaning practices will be ramped up, with much more disinfecting, especially in shared areas like common rooms and kitchenettes.
Other alterations will be more far-reaching. Ventilation will have to be a consideration now, especially since building heating and cooling systems are a potential way of spreading the virus. Sealed office towers will have to be reexamined and likely opened up for some fresh air. The impact on building design will be massive. I would expect that a lot of blueprints are being ripped up as I type, and some last-minute changes being forced on offices currently under construction.
Switching offices over to warehouses is a strong likelihood, particularly since the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in the supply chain. Expect more local storage of key goods across North America, to avoid potential issues with shipping. Expect this to be most pronounced with regard to anything shipped internationally, although I would expect changes locally as well given the issues with keeping some essentials on store shelves in recent weeks (toilet paper, for example). We will see some retreating from globalization after C-19 recedes, as well, which will add to the need for warehouse space and encourage the permanent retiring of some office buildings.
But the very best part of the changes to office space arrangements? If you’re working from home, you never have to worry about someone stealing your stapler. Okay, now I absolutely have to re-watch Office Space.