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Remote work vs back to the office? It's more complicated than you realise

Location is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to remaking the 9-to-5.
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Written by Steve Ranger, Editorial director, ZDNet on

The existence of the office was secure so long as one basic assumption still held true: that collecting teams together in one physical space – along with all the information and the tools they needed to process that data – was the most productive way of arranging a knowledge-based organisation.

But the truth of that assumption has been fundamentally eroded by technology, first gradually over the last couple of decades and then rapidly over the last couple of years.

Few of us need to go to an office to access files anymore; they're all digitized and in the cloud. You don't have to go to the office to use a PC anymore; the days of the massive beige box on the desk are (mostly) over, too. And two years of Zoom and Microsoft Teams has also shown us that we don't always need to be in the same physical space to communicate.

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So why travel for hours to an office when you can get everything done just as easily from home? With productivity up and commuting down, no wonder many tech workers would swap a promotion for the ability to work from wherever they like.

In which case, what's the point of the office anymore?

SEE: Worried your developers will quit? These are the 5 things that coders say keep them happy at work

It's not as simple as that; for every person who loves their working-from-home experience, there is at least another who can't wait to wave their own four walls goodbye. And while many people have been more productive at home, for others it has been a struggle of competing demands – and burnout looms large for all.

While a lot of the discussion has focused on how the location of work has changed, there's been less thought about how the work we do in those places will change.

SEE: Remote-working jobs vs back to the office: Why tech's Great Resignation may have only just begun

'Work' will mean very different things in different places. One theory popular right now is that remote working is about focusing on individual tasks, and office days will be a chance for team work.

But inevitably the future of work is likely to be more complicated. Some people will go to the office for human connection and the ability to create new ideas. But others will come to the office to focus; you can't brainstorm every single day.

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Across this complex spatial division of labour, it's not so obvious immediately how bosses and their staff will manage the workflow and the team dynamics that will be disrupted by the shift to hybrid work.

Now is potentially the time to rethink not just which parts of the job are done in the office and which are done at home, but also to ask some fundamental questions about how we arrange our working lives. A lot has changed for everyone during the past two years, and we've all had plenty of time to think about what does and doesn't work in our jobs, and our office lives. That reality means the return to the office should not simply be a return to business as usual.

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