“We shape our buildings and afterwards our building shape us.” | Winston Churchill
Most of knowledge workers spent a significant day of their work day on optimizations. Improving sales processes, fine-tuning operations, writing code that computes faster or thinking about fancy HR analytics to make people work more productively. Yet, the place we physically work at is rarely optimized. The office of today looks strikingly similar to how the times when the printing press was first moved.
The Covid-19 pandemic changed the work place dramatically, likely for the long-term. Full companies moved remotely, a process that seemed unimaginable even three years ago.
Now some people do not want to return to the office at all anymore. Companies have tried anything from encouraging people with parties to pushing their employees with implicit threats. The Morgan Stanley CEO James Corman infamously quipped “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”. Looking at recent job boards (even at the career service for MBAs at Harvard Business School), remote only jobs are becoming a real thing. So what might convince people to return?
The office of the future promises to offer more than just chairs and desks, water coolers and foosball tables. We could move to different areas based on the type of work we are engaged in: collaborative areas around communal tables, library rooms for deep work and lounge areas for presenting. And those are only structural changes in the buildings, the real appeal may come from bridging the analogue world with the digital.
The lights and temperature adjusts to our mood and energy levels based on fitness trackers. Our relationships in the office get analyzed and serendipity gets pushed by “random” assignments to whom you should sit next to today. Microphones – using meta analysis, no content – understand your communication effectivness and presence in the office. Air filters detect early signs of flu waves and liquids are automatically delivered to your desk so you stay hydrated. All of this sounds futuristic, but every single idea exists in offices already.
The present feels like we can work from anywhere. Perhaps we return to a future, where we can only really work from the office.