The future of office space: Can you all be in the boat if working remote?

This article was originally posted on REjournals.

It’s the million-dollar question that everyone keeps asking, “What is the future of office space?”

So let’s start with what we know about corporate office space. We know that companies will maintain and enhance office space for their employees in order to create a safe and dynamic environment. We know that companies want to locate offices near their workforce, clients and prospective clients, as well as their vendors, dining and entertainment. We also know that even though the study of workplace environment is evolving, some things will remain constant: offices will always have some combination of open space, private meeting/head-down space and calling card features that highlight the culture and identity of a company.

In addition, we also now know how traumatic a pandemic can be, affecting families, businesses and the global economy. We now know how important it is to regularly wash your hands, maintain social distancing and that heroes are zeros if they come to the office sick.

From the technology side, we now know for sure that us Gen Xers and Baby Boomers can successfully operate videoconferencing and screen sharing technology. We have proven that we have the discipline to create remote work environments that are focused and conducive to productivity at our kitchen tables and we have, for the most part, proven that we can stay away from the wine racks until the eastern time zone makes it appropriate to start sipping.

Perhaps most importantly, when we get down to the brass tacks, we know budgets look a lot better when reducing a company’s second highest line item after payroll—but more on that later.

If you’ve been around this business long enough, none of this is earth-shattering intel.

But let’s also look at what we don’t know. We don’t know how productive “productive” is when all or most work functions “go remote.” After all, I don’t know of any company where the goal going into a fiscal year is for employees to be as productive (versus more productive) as they can be. We don’t know if companies can maintain corporate culture, onboard new employees and create a competitive recruiting edge in a 100 percent remote work structure.

And this last point is where it gets interesting.

Over the past decade and led by, but not exclusive to, the tech sector, office space has been used as the tool to attract and retain top talent. As a result, there has been a major migration from the suburbs to the cities as corporations relocated headquarters or regional offices to major urban hubs with access to public transportation, live/work neighborhoods, arts/cultural centers and exciting hospitality and entertainment options. Companies made huge capital investments to demonstrate a long-term commitment to workplace environment and to win the battle for the best-of-the-best workforce knowing that new hires, especially younger workers, valued culture, purpose and lifestyle ahead of employee compensation packages and career trajectory. The physical manifestation of such investment was a company’s office space.

Based on all of this information, why are we still questioning the future of the office at this point? Well, it boils down to the mixed messaging corporations continue to put out regarding their COVID remote work polices.

At the moment, it seems that we live in a world dominated by extremes and this is no exception. The shift in thinking on office space—thinking that all of a sudden dismisses the power of workplace and human contact and says remote work is the new model for productivity and growth—has been instituted based on concerns for the health and well-being of employees and in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

It’s an understandable reaction but it falls short and fails to take into account what studies continue to show about human interaction at work. And it definitely doesn’t match up with the messaging many CEOs were conveying to the market via public statements shortly before the pandemic started. In 2019, one tech company was elated to open its new headquarters where “customers and guests cultivate relationships across teams, support the hiring and retention of employees, and inspire creativity and innovation.” By 2020, that same company said it would allow its employees to work remotely on a permanent basis stating that “the whole premise of our product is ‘boundary-less’ work environments.”

A global social media company said in 2019 that its new headquarters “allows us to rapidly scale, while preserving our values of collaboration and transparency” only to announce a year later that its employees could work from home forever. And the head of one notable e-commerce giant said at his company’s grand headquarters opening in 2019 that he was excited for his team to connect with one another at one of the many “collaborative spaces” only to say in 2020 that “office centricity is over.”

And there are so many more.

It’s whiplash.

While COVID has forced an unexpected, long-term test of the remote work model—by all observations a successful one from a technology and basic level of productivity standpoint—experience tells us, as do numerous studies, that ideas are inspired from energy, proximity and engagement with others and that face-to-face interaction boosts employee productivity. It’s clear that the office of the future will need to be tweaked to support new health standards in the workplace as hygiene, air quality and general safety measures become new priorities for landlords and tenants alike.

But executive teams can use this very unique window to re-imagine their workforce of the future, and, at the same time, reevaluate the space and costs associated with their real estate. That means understanding that while certain individual work functions can be even very productive in a remote work environment, the same cannot be said for all jobs working remotely 100 percent of the time. It is simply not sustainable.

The pandemic has provided a welcome, and in many cases, long overdue evaluation of the “9 to 5,” five days a week, at your desk work week. A more holistic look at the workplace and how to staff it is welcome. Owners, developers, tenants, etc. must take some time, step back and eventually take a measured approach and combine in-office, flex hours and remote work opportunities for maximum productivity.

But based on what we know, and what we don’t know, a complete 180 ruling that says that the office is dead is nonsense. Though this recalibration has been a long time coming for many reasons, the answer to the question “What is the future of the workplace?” has been right in front of us all along.