Offices are closed. They were open until recently and will reopen again. But right now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are working from home and they’re not ecstatic about the experience. Yes, you can work in your underpants, but if your kids are attending online classes in the next room, your home turns into a warzone. With two adults and two or more kids in a household, finding a quiet space can become literally impossible. We are living through the largest WFH experiment ever staged, and everyone is wondering: What’s next?
Bubonic plague is not a popular subject in conversations about the future of technology or its economic ramifications, but here we go nonetheless–the Black Death ravaged Europe in the early Middle Ages and wiped out up to 200 million people. It was the worst catastrophe we know of that ever hit humanity, and the deadliest epidemic since we started keeping track of such things. The Black Death changed the balance of power in Europe and was one of the key drivers behind the emergence of the Renaissance. It was tragic, with a massively transformative impact on society. For 14th century Florence, it was a “Black Swan” event long before the concept of “Black Swans” was part of the lingo among bankers and market traders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed thousands of lives and ravaged markets across the world, wiping billions off the market valuations of energy, transportation, and hospitality companies. Although COVID-19 is no Black Death – it’s neither as viral nor as deadly – we live in a more complex and integrated world, and our society is much more fragile than Europe was in the Middle Ages. We are now testing its resilience.
The social construct that’s been most affected by COVID-19 is office work. Most offices are closed, many are locked down, and companies are relying on virtual conferencing tools as the key method of communication. We were not prepared for the pandemic, and are stretching the boundaries of social interaction as a result. Moreover, we are doing it in real time, with minimal planning and a lot of experimentation, which under normal circumstances would not have been desirable. Thankfully, the necessary tools exist, interaction continues apace, and the general malaise of office workers now centers on missing casual encounters rather than inactivity.
When we all head back to the office, many of the standards and norms that were accepted prior to COVID-19 will have been irrevocably changed. Germophobia will become more prevalent and we will put a higher value on private spaces. Will co-working or shared-office survive? Leaders in charge of real estate decisions at Global 2000 companies will not want to risk the health of company employees by opting into densification. We abandoned the concept of spaces that gave each person 250 square feeta decade ago, but it’s doubtful that the 66 square feet per person prevalent now in shared-space environments will be acceptable. We’ll probably land somewhere in the middle.
The sustainability of build outs was an emergent topic before the pandemic. Modular architecture and a variety of standardized and reusable furniture components were going to deliver offices that could adjust to business needs, reduce construction and demolition waste, and make a big dent in the amount of carbon produced by office life. Movable walls, flexible meeting rooms and pods, kitchenettes that arrive flat-packed to be assembled within hours– all these were going to become staples of office construction anyway. We were already at the precipice of a massive shift in thinking about office design, in which we assembled offices rather than constructing them, and COVID-19 will only push that further over the edge. Expect a new reality that embraces sustainable and purpose-built workspaces designed to adapt to the desired use case.
Notwithstanding any particular use case though, the trend of taking employee productivity and happiness into account is well underway. Now we’ll also bring employee health and wellness to the forefront of real estate decisions. Workplace strategy specialists will talk as much about HEPA filters as they do about lighting, sound, and internal communications.
Antiviral office treatments? Tools and technologies that make every room a clean room? Those might be a little extreme, but you can bet that a greater focus on hygiene and workplace safety will become the norm. Office has already changed. Think of it as a temporary closure for renovation and innovation. It’ll reopen as a network of use-case driven tailored spaces that are available globally, on-demand, and on flexible terms.
Edward Shenderovich is Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Knotel, a New York-based flexible workspace provider for large companies. Founded in 2015, Knotel operates a network of dedicated tailored spaces in 20 cities around the world.