The office of the future won’t arrive anytime soon

We still don’t know what the office of the future will look like. But thanks to AI and the permacrisis, it will be leaner than before.

The office is dead, long live the office? More than three years after the pandemic started a great remote work experiment, we still don’t know what the office of the future will look like. Office attendance is significantly lower than pre-pandemic and will probably stay that way. Companies are using the current business cycle to tighten their office footprint.

We now have proof that we don’t need the office for most of what used to be called “office work”. It can be done anywhere. And with the new wave of AI changing work as well, the future of the office looks even more obscure. What kind of spaces will we need for what remains of white-collar work after AI has swept through? Nobody knows.

We now have both parts of the office work equation as unknown variables: the office and the work itself.

From the employees’ point of view, the picture is more clear: On the one hand, there are office diehards who show up every day, pandemic or not. They like being there, they don’t mind the commute or have a short one, they don’t have a decent place to work at home, or they are still moving paper as in the olden days. For example, the German public administration struggles with digitisation and heavily relies on paper files.

On the other hand, we have remote work champions who like to work from home, or remotely, and need a reason to go to the office. For these people, things get tricky. Meeting a bunch of people that will be there anyway may be a reason to commute from time to time, but how many trips does this justify?

The office lottery

And for the majority of workers who are neither office diehards nor remote work champions, it becomes a lottery. They don’t know in advance who will be there, or they need to make appointments. Since meetings have turned into Zoom calls, the default is now that everyone meets online, not in physical spaces.

This has led to teams being distributed over different cities, or even countries. Combined with restrictions on business travel, chances are now that employees will never meet their teammates in person, except on screen. Why go to an office if your coworkers are in other countries?

There’s one remaining reason to go in that’s unchanged: the office as a social environment, a space for personal interaction. Just meeting people for the sake of meeting people. Being a human being amongst others. Now, this reason fades at the square of the distance between home and the office. The longer the commute, the less attractive it is.

The office as a theme park

So, instead the office experience needs to be more attractive. We’re now deep into hospitality, or entertainment, territory. The office as a theme park, a bar, or even a club? This may sound odd, but let’s give it some thought. The office has become optional for many, and thus it has to compete with other experiences, places to be, or ways to spend your time and attention.

The internet has eaten the office.

This has happened to other things; think about commerce, or music. These examples teach us that the better experience wins. If the office experience sucks, who wants to be there? Only those who need to be there. See above.

Creating the new office experience will take time, plenty of experiments, and money. All these are scarce. That’s why the office of the future won’t arrive anytime soon.

But what about work? What do we already know about white-collar work in the future that can give us some hints about the spaces we need to do it?

The truth is: not much. While we can expect that AI will automate structured, repetitive and predictable work first, it’s possible that it will overtake unstructured, unpredictable creative work as well.

Two basic functions of the future office

This leaves us with two basic functions of the future office:

  1. Providing desks and amenities for a subset of workers
  2. Facilitating in-person meetings and gatherings

That’s what offices were always about. But now, the strategic question becomes how much of these two functions we really want. How many offices does a distributed workforce need? How large should the subset of workers attending offices be? How many face-to-face meetings and gatherings do we want? Because in the end, someone has to foot the bill. Having people at the office costs money. So what is the desired future state of the office?

Essentially, what we’re running now is still a large-scale experiment. It’s not as if we could go to the drawing board and design the office of the future in one fell swoop. This requires trial and error. Employee behaviour is constantly shifting, and so are office environments. If offices are energetic places, employees will feel a need to be there. If not, well… They may still be compelled to attend.

Rethinking and reinventing the office

Since the office has become optional, it’s under pressure to change. The old model is certainly going to decline, because no company can afford under-used office spaces over time. It’s not clear yet if a new model is going to emerge. This would require a certain amount of investment in terms of time, experiments, and money. Companies will only do that if they see an upside.

Three years ago, I wrote:

We need to rethink and reinvent work and the office.

The need is still there, but why hasn’t happened much? In part at least, we can blame it on the polycrisis and permacrisis that have kept companies busy. The current hype around artificial intelligence provides some cover for more immediate change, like cutting workforces and office spaces. Three years in, companies can safely close low-used offices. And a new round of automation, under the label of AI, can justify layoffs.

So both work and the office, rethought and reinvented, may end up leaner than before.

Photo by Mildly Useful on Unsplash