The office of the future is about people not places

The future of employment will be a hybrid mix of office- and home-working. Workers will spend less time commuting and more time collaborating. Bosses will need to make sure remote workers feel connected and engaged.

One thing seems certain in these uncertain times: when your office re-opens, nothing will be quite the same again. 

Before 2020, flexible working was the exception rather than the rule. Too many bosses over-relied on command-and-control structures and a heavy dose of presenteeism; managers needed to see their staff to believe that they were being productive.

All that changed in 2020, as companies, their workforces and their day-to-day activities switched to home working. Almost overnight, everyone had to be trusted to get on with their work remotely – and, for the most part, the results have been positive. 

SEE: Working from home: The future of business is remote (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Almost half (44%) of bosses believe home working is proving "more effective" than their previous setup, according to research by the Institute of Directors (IoD). The research also suggests three-quarters (74%) of managers plan on keeping increased home-working hours after the coronavirus.

All this and more has been established away from the traditional heartbeat of the enterprise: the office. So what does this new-found trust in remote working mean for the way we work and the places we do it?

Experts suggests the future of employment will be a hybrid mix of office- and home-working. As many as 90% of HR leaders believe employees will carry of working remotely in the post-COVID age, says tech analyst Gartner.

That shift to hybrid working is something that resonates with Paul Coby, CIO at global science and chemicals company Johnson Matthey, whose guess is that people in the future will split their time between working from home and going into the office. 

What that means for many of us is that the traditional nine-to-five working day at the corporate HQ isn't coming back. "It seems to me that sitting in an office doing emails doesn't seem like a great use of offices or an individual's time," says Coby.

Other experts agree. Researcher CCS Insights predicts more than half of all office-based employees will still work mainly remotely through 2022. IoD research, meanwhile, suggests more than half of business leaders plan on reducing their long-term use of workplaces, with more than one in five reporting use will be significantly lower.

The office that many of us knew – with its command-and-control leadership styles – is probably gone forever. Get it right, and managers could change how we all work for the better. But quite how business leaders will organise and manage the hybrid workplace of the future is still very much up for debate right now.

"I don't think any of us really know where the new normal is yet and we're going to have to work it through," says Coby.

If less of us are based in the office permanently, then we're all going to have to think very carefully about how we use the time when we are together. Instead of being a place to work, the office of the future might be more helpfully viewed as a place where we go to meet.

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Coby: "I don't think any of us really know where the new normal is yet."

Johnson Matthey

Video-conferencing technology has helped us to carry on working in extreme circumstances, but managers also recognise that people will need to get together in-person when we can. All-day video chats have left us tired, isolated and craving real-world physical contact again. That demand will mean offices retain an important tole.

"There is something magic about human interaction in the room that, however clever Zoom is, you can't replicate," says Coby. "I think we're going to end up with a situation where people come into work for things that are team-building."

The focus on collaboration will be paramount for all bosses going forward. As workers settle into a hybrid way of working, so their managers will need to adopt a leadership style that ensures remote workers – whether they're spending a couple days or the whole week at home – are still connected and engaged. 

Coby says business leaders will have learnt some important best-practice lessons about keeping geographically disparate workers connected and content during the coronavirus pandemic. 

At Johnson Matthey, the IT department has "doubled down" on communications. The organisation runs a global monthly town-hall meeting. Recent keynote speakers have included chief executive Robert MacLeod.

"We've had other key people, such as the finance director, and they've all said, 'thank you everybody for the incredible things you've done during the pandemic'," says Coby. "And that kind of feedback is worth five times me saying that because it's actually coming on behalf of everybody in the business."

Leaning heavily on Agile software development methodologies, the IT leadership team at Johnson Matthey also has two stand-ups ever week on Monday and Wednesday mornings; Coby says those sessions help people feel confident and comfortable.

"That's important because you can look people in the eye – you can see who's feeling a bit wobbly this week," he says. "That matters and we've encouraged everybody to do that with their teams as well."

While social distancing has created new pressures for everyone in the past 12 months, Coby says working through the challenging conditions of the pandemic has encouraged people to be a bit more open, simply because they've had to.

"We've talked about that quite a lot on our catch-up calls," he says. "There's no simple answers to all of this, except communicate, communicate, communicate."

Coby says managers at all levels have become much more tolerant of the myriad challenges that all workers face. From hitting work targets to juggling home responsibilities and onto managing personal wellbeing, everyone has been empowered to manage their own lives – and that's a big positive for business leaders who will introduce the hybrid workplace of the future.

"Things happen that you've just simply got to deal with – and everybody will see that, and is OK with it. And in many ways, it's made people more human because everybody genuinely wants to help people who've got particular pressures on them. I think that's really important," he says.