Published on 26 May 2020

Coronavirus: What's the future for the office?


Before the coronavirus pandemic, the office was where millions of us spent about a third of our time.

However, since the lockdown, almost half the UK's workforce say they have been working from home - and some companies have hinted it could become the future.

"The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past," said the boss of Barclays, while Morgan Stanley's chief said the bank will have "much less real estate". Businessman Sir Martin Sorrell said he'd rather invest the £35m he spends on expensive offices in people instead.

The game is up for the office as we know it, suggests Bruce Daisley, who is the author of The Joy of Work.

"Unfortunately, we might get misty-eyed about it but I think the office in the form it used to be is probably now a thing of the past," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "I was chatting to someone who works at a major media outlet last week, and he said we used to have 1,400 people coming into this office every day. For the last eight weeks we've had 30 people and the product hasn't changed.

"He said anyone who thinks things are going to go back to the way things were is bananas."

But declaring the end of the office is not clear-cut, says Prof André Spicer, from City University's Cass Business School. He predicts a "radical decrease" in the amount of time people spend in the office - but says office working will not be over for good. One reason, he suggests, is that home-workers tend not to get promoted as quickly - "They tend to get overlooked".

So with a recession on the way, people may want to be visible.

"Particularly in times of economic crisis, people will start thinking: I want to be in the workplace, the boss needs to see me," he adds.

Prof Spicer also suggests offices will remain as hubs where senior managers are based, with employees travelling in once or twice a week to meet with their bosses. That seems to be similar to Twitter's plan, allowing staff to work from home forever - although keeping offices open if people want to come in.

Home-working is not new - it's been on the up in recent decades - and many companies have already been trying to save money on rent by hiring co-working space.

"I think cost is a big driver," says Prof Spicer. "I think a lot of companies will say we are spending all this money on rent so let's move to more home-working. That was already happening."

How will it affect us?

Many of us have already discovered some of the perks and problems of working from home. Some are obvious - no commute; less chance to socialise with colleagues. But others go to the heart of our identity.

"I think we should all howl at what we're losing," says Lucy Kellaway, who has written both fiction and non-fiction books about offices. "I think the most important thing about the office is it gives some sort of meaning to what we do. Most of what we do at our laptops - let's face it - is pretty much meaningless.

"The best way of thinking there's some point to it is having other people who are sitting all round you doing the same thing."

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionPrior to the 18th Century, most office work was done in people's homes and coffee shops

She adds that offices keep us sane and give us a routine.

"And once we're there we can be a different person," she told Today. "I don't know about you but I'm absolutely sick and tired of being the same person all day as I slouch around at home. I want to have different clothes, go into the office, see different people who become my lifelong friends and have a complete laugh when I'm there."

Prof Spicer says studies show that people who work from home are more productive and happier - especially without the commute, one of the main factors that make people unhappy. But among the downsides, he cites one study showing home-workers feel they are "in exile" and thus become "needy towards their bosses".

"Catching their boss's eye becomes their main job. It's that desire to be seen to be doing stuff and when you're not you become a bit worried and paranoid. That's a downside for employees and employers."

Video captionHome workers discuss the problems and benefits

Another disadvantage is the risk that home-working could "exacerbate inequalities," says Prof Spicer - for example between those who have more space at home than others, and between men and women.

"In my sector, academia, one big effect is journal submissions from women has massively gone down. The obvious reason for that… most childcare and dealing with home tasks is still picked up by women."

Meanwhile, younger workers will miss out on learning from their more experienced colleagues, and those informal conversations that lead to good ideas will be gone, adds Mr Daisley.