Could COVID-19 change the look of the office as we know it?

Working from home could be a lot more permanent than most realise.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Governments worldwide have scrambled to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak by mandating quarantine measures that require people to work from home if they can. This has meant enterprises -- whether they were ready or not -- have been thrust into accommodating for these changes by enabling remote working.

Part of that shift has been organisations, both large and small, equipping staff with all the necessary tools so they can carry on with work through this pandemic. It has ranged from moving to the cloud to allow for easy file sharing, to introducing real-time communication applications to stay connected, to creating virtual private networks for security.

While the shift to remote working has been swift, it may work so well that some may consider making it a more permanent way of working.

Findings of a recent Gartner survey revealed that 74% of CFOs expect to move a number of previously on-site employees to remote working situations permanently post-COVID-19, in a move to cut commercial real estate costs.

TransparentBusiness chief transparency officer Moe Vela explained that as more companies realise the benefit of telecommuting, the way of working will become less traditional.  

"I think there will be a diminished demand for office space," he told ZDNet

"This should be good news for a company because it will cost them less. Office space in places like New York City, Los Angles, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, and London are exorbitantly expensive, so this should be music to a company's ears.

"If we do this correctly right now, we'll retrain ourselves in every way and make this work, then companies will have those benefits when we have a diminished need for office space."

Citrix Australia and New Zealand managing director Keith Buckley agreed, saying he anticipates the current shift toward remote working will "amplify the employee's appetite for these sorts of arrangements to be established as the norm" in the future.

"Before the global pandemic, we were seeing companies experiment with flexible and agile working arrangements. We also saw a small shift in the design of office spaces before the pandemic. Businesses began to move away from the traditional, bull-pen office layout and focused on developing spaces that were people-centric, collaborative, and engaging," he said.

"I have no doubt that many businesses will seize the opportunity to rethink their working arrangements to provide more flexibility to their employees than ever before, especially considering the proven benefits to productivity and engagement."

Alex Scandurra, CEO of co-working space and innovation hub Stone & Chalk, echoed similar remarks.

"While it's difficult to predict exactly what a post-COVID-19 workplace will look like, we anticipate that remote working and digital collaboration will play an ongoing role in our industry and beyond," he said.

"This week I've seen kids having virtual get-togethers, builders using facetime to clarify instructions, and company directors holding digital board meetings.

"We believe that the most successful companies in the future will be those that increase permeability between their internal machinery and external talent in the form of fast-paced and highly-innovative companies developing emerging technology."

In the meantime, to help ease the financial burden for existing tenants, the company has offered a three-month membership fee waiver.

"We are supporting our residents and alumni with access to customers, capital, expertise, talent and international networks remotely. Stone & Chalk has already started virtual events and skills studios for residents and will soon be making them available to any venture in Australia which needs support with cash flow management, cost control, managing people, government assistance and many other areas," Scandurra said.

"We are mobilising our impact network of investors, mentors, corporate and subject matter experts to provide ongoing support to our members." 

Read also: How remote work rose by 400% in the past decade (TechRepublic)

For Fishburners, the group has seen a significant temporary decline in membership, as residents comply with COVID-19 self-isolation and self-distancing requirements, according to CEO Nicole O'Brien.

"We estimate that, unfortunately, around 30% of our current startup members will not be able to sustain their businesses through this period, particularly those that were working in the travel and education sectors," she said.

"However, through anxious and troubling times our community is sticking together and making use of the online infrastructure we have long had set up at Fishburners."

O'Brien, however, remained optimistic that once the pandemic passes, more businesses will be more likely to give flexible working arrangements the tick of approval, which would include shifting away from traditional office spaces to more co-working spaces with shared facilities that would be otherwise unaffordable, such as team or customer meeting spaces, training rooms, and event facilities.

"Once the isolation measures are reduced, whilst flexible working will be stronger than ever, we anticipate a strong desire for startups and entrepreneurs to have access to fit for purpose office facilities and the community support, collaboration and knowledge sharing provided by services like Fishburners," she said.

The benefits of remote working are something companies such as Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), which employs nearly 50,000 people, discovered early on.

"Commonwealth Bank has been offering work from home options to its employees for years, and its offices have long been designed to support flexible working, including hot-desking," a CBA spokesperson said.

"This has given us the ability to support more employees working from home in these extraordinary circumstances. Commonwealth Bank will continue to support remote and flexible work arrangements for its employees, as well as collaborative work environments to grow productivity and foster a culture of innovation."

Must read: Remote work, especially in IT, could become a permanent trend (TechRepublic)

But it was not all that long ago that businesses were apprehensive about working remotely. Vela explained how those businesses shared a mutual fear about remote working: That it could impede staff productivity levels.

"Their number one concern was that if I can't see my employees, if I don't know what they're doing, then my productivity is going to go down and operations will suffer. Ultimately, their fear was that it was going to lead to the demise of their business," he said.

"So, in order to overcome that … we need to make this work and one of the ways to address that concern of management involves technology … so if we do that side right and we use solutions that are in the marketplace already, then we can actually not only keep productivity but it could actually increase."

According to Vela, telecommuting has, in fact, had quite the opposite effect -- and with so many organisations working remotely in the current environment, the benefits will become more apparent.    

"Even though it's mandatory, the good thing that can come from it is employees will be more content because their work-life balance is better. You don't have to sit in two-hour traffic every day, or you don't have to get on a train or a bus. You get that one or two hours back in your life," Vela said.

"There's also more time with your family. You get to make lunch in your own kitchen … so there are a lot of benefits, and ultimately that creates a more content worker, and therefore a more productive worker."

Related Coverage

Editorial standards