Evolution of the Office – What’s Next?

Even before the coronavirus struck, the reign of the office as a permanent fixture in modern professional life had begun to look a bit shaky. According to Catherine Nixey’s article, Death of the Office, she contends “a combination of rising rents, the digital revolution and increased demands for flexible working meant its population was slowly emigrating to a different milieu.”  Most scientists will still need to go into labs to run experiments, but many administrators who have made the transition to full-time remote work completely seamlessly find themselves asking, “Is the office now completely antiquated?”

In the 20th century, factory designers turned their attention to offices. Sure, the moving parts were human but to optimize efficiency, many of the same principles were applied and so the open-plan office was born. Offices have long provoked strong sentiments. Poet John Betjeman wished for bombs to fall and “blow to smithereens/Those air-conditioned, bright canteens.” Despite the lack of aesthetics, research shows that office space can have profound effects on one’s physical and mental health and that offices might be more unpleasant for women. Air temperature tends to be set to suit the metabolic rates for a 154-pound, 40-year-old man leaving many women to freeze.

The most revolutionary aspect of the office wasn’t really focused so much on the building and space as just how much time we spent in them AND commuting to them. During the pandemic, many have found luxurious relief and freedom from their daily commute. Likewise, parents have found that they can no longer hide or keep up the pretense that their children don’t exist as they pop into Zoom meetings or can be heard crying during a staff call. Emily Oster, Professor of Economics at Brown and author of “Cribsheet” notes that parents often tried to keep a false pretense of not being distracted by personal obligations even going as far as “pretending they are themselves ill so that they can care for a sick infant lest people think they are prioritizing parenting.”

With the digital revolution risking redundancy, offices felt their power slipping away and many companies tried to up their game by bringing in ping-pong tables and snack bars in an attempt to keep workers perpetually in their hold.

With all of that said, humans need social encounters and work is often better when collaborating. Offices often filled this need and brought with it an artifice of order and productivity. It may be too early to say what will happen to the office permanently, but it could be the start of another revolution.

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