Is Coronavirus Finally Going To Kill The Office?

Even before the current pandemic, the office was going through its death throes. Companies were doing everything that they could to paper over the problems with the setup, trying somehow to mask the inadequacies of fixed places of work.

Google, for instance, had taken to throwing ball pits and helter-skelters into its public spaces in the hope that it would appease millennial workers. Facebook was experimenting with on-site massage parlors, turning its premises into a makeshift spa. And the ever-sensible Microsoft had taken to offering mindfulness classes to help people manage the otherwise horrifyingly dullness of their surroundings.

Then COVID-19 came along, and everything changed. Offices didn’t just reluctantly close their doors to workers: they positively relished it. Workers jumped at the opportunity to rid themselves of the environmental drudgery of their careers and live free as a bird, working from their laptops.

It is unclear right now whether this is a blow from which the office sector will ever recover. There will, of course, be a bounce once this nightmare is over. But everyone will know – executives and employees alike – that the office is superficial. You don’t need it. People can work from home, so long as they have a computer connection and broadband.

Of course, there are no historical precedents for this kind of thing. When the last pandemic of equal magnitude struck in 1918, most people worked in factories or farms. There were very few offices outside of places like New York and London. And there was no internet. You had to centralize to survive. In the early part of the 20th century, the office flourished,

That’s unlikely to happen in today’s climate for two reasons: technology and the nature of pandemics.

Internet-Enabled Technology

The moment that offices went “paperless” was the moment that the world realized that they were surplus to requirement. Sure, there’s a belief that workers put in more effort when they’re not wearing their pajamas from the waist down, sitting with their laptop at the kitchen table. But when you digitize everything, you recognize that there’s no genuine need for offices to be based around physical “stuff.” You can do almost everything virtually.

Combine this trend with the internet, and you have a new paradigm emerging. Companies like Summit Broadband have seen a massive uptick in the number of businesses asking for their services. Executives want to make new “offices” that aren’t about the building itself or the photocopier, but the relationships between people.

Wait a second: this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It seems like something that a Christian might say about a church. It’s not the building – it’s the people in it who are the essence of the institution. Office-based businesses are likely to come to a similar realization.

The Nasty Nature Of Pandemics

The second reason to expect the death of the office comes back to the nasty nature of pandemics. When you look back historically at how these things develop, you realize that they’re not one-shot events. They rumble on, often arriving in several waves before they burn themselves out.

The Black Death of the fourteenth century, for instance, lingered on for nearly a decade. The Spanish flu lasted for at least two years. And both of those were virtually entirely uncontained. Coronavirus will probably last much longer as politicians attempt to “flatten the curve.”

Viruses mutate. They wax and wane in virulence, depending on which strains are most successful in reproducing themselves. Things could get better very quickly, but they could also get worse. We will have to see.

The critical point here is that it will likely be a very long time before things return to any sense of normality. And that means that offices are facing an existential threat to their existence. It will be a long time before public health officials tell managers that it is okay to open up their places of work again with no restrictions on movement. And that means that the market will tank. Companies won’t just stick it out and wait for business as usual. They can’t afford that. Instead, they’ll adapt their operations to cater to remote work. If they find that it works, they might not even bother going back to their old setup. They’ll want to be meaner, leaner, and more flexible.

The office as we know it, therefore, might have just been dealt a death blow by the public health emergency. We will have to wait and see how things play out, but in ten years, we may look back at grey cubicles with a strong sense of nostalgia.

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