Álvaro Villar
General Manager
WeWork
/
Expert Contributor

Workplace Beyond 2020: How COVID changed the Role of the Office

By Alvaro Villar | Tue, 02/09/2021 - 09:15

With the new year underway, we are entering another month of a global pandemic that caught us off guard. I’ve had time to reflect on the enormous challenges we’ve faced in 2020 and the profound transformation that lies ahead.

The real estate industry was hit hard by the migration of millions of workers around the globe to working from home. Almost overnight, we saw densely populated corporate offices turned into empty boxes with no life. Soon, the headlines started questioning if this was the end of the office.

Working from home has been nice. Personally, I’ve enjoyed quality time with my kids at home and I’ve used the extra time I’ve saved from commuting, working out and reading books I’d been postponing for a long time. But it’s no secret that after a couple of months of being connected all the time, most of us are not really connecting.

Owning a dedicated workspace at home is a privilege available only to a few, and those with access to that sacred space have discovered its downfalls. For me, the most relevant is not being able to truly collaborate and connect face to face with my team. A virtual conversation where you have to “unmute” yourself to express your point of view will never match a hallway conversation over coffee; nobody can argue that.

What is it that people really miss about their workplace? We need to answer that question before we truly understand the shift we’re about to see in the role of the corporate office.

Collaboration

A recent post by The New York Times described that, “People don’t really want to get back to the office …  They want to see people’s faces again, and have conversations with people who are closer than six feet from them. But that doesn’t mean that they actually want to be back in the office — at least not the way the office was before.” It makes us reflect and ask ourselves what does the office really mean to us as individuals.

Last September, I heard a shocking statistic from a Lucidspark study demonstrating that one in five remote workers were actually breaking the company’s safety policies to meet in person; they felt virtual meetings just weren’t as effective as meeting face to face. The honest truth is that this is not OK. It’s up to us as business leaders to provide better solutions that guarantee our team’s safety and provide the means for successful collaboration. We’re social creatures, we crave human interaction, recognition and approval; when performing our jobs, we’re no different, we need to connect.

The office may not be the only place where we can work and be productive. Home office will soon become “anywhere office.” Some countries are already experimenting with special remote-work visas for “digital nomads,” allowing you to take your current job to a distant land with a little bit of paperwork. There’s no limit to what we can do; but we need to be sharp and responsible in making decisions when it comes to remote work: it’s simply not for everyone, not for every role, not for every individual.

Purpose

Put simply, the workplace has proved to be the glue that holds our work environments together and the space that provides us with purpose. As stated by Forbes, the office also provides a critical sense of common ground, a shared purpose and a clear direction; it’s the office where we define where we want to go as a company and as professionals, and it’s also where we build the strategic relationships that help us to shape our career paths with success. 

Balance

It comes as no surprise that our work-life balance has been very unbalanced lately, probably as a side effect of not being able to return to our offices at least partially. When you work from home, the office is everywhere, and suddenly the line between your job and your personal life becomes blurry. However, maintaining a healthy distance between the two has never been so relevant; so much so that Mexico’s government included remote workers’ “right to disconnect” in its most recent amendment to the labor law.

When you’re in balance, in a safe and adequate space, you can easily cut out distractions and enter a comfortable and productive flow. Unfortunately for many, working from home has taken some toll on employees whose working conditions at home are far from ideal.

With all this, no wonder people want to go back to the office, but not the way it was before; they want options. The old way wasn’t working, we just didn't notice. The truth is that we will never work the same way as before and the role of the office will transform forever.

As we continue the conversation one thing is clear: the future of work will be increasingly hybrid. Companies are already creating their own hybrid models and deciding for themselves what is best for their business. Others, however, are waiting for everything to go back to normal, thinking they might lose some control over their workforce, or even suffer a decay in productivity. From my perspective, there’s never been a better time to transform. By giving employees the chance to decide where and when they want to work, the possibilities in terms of productivity, engagement and innovation, will reach far beyond the walls of any office.

Before COVID-19, the office was a place where we met to work from 8 to 5, five days a week. In no time, the office will become the place where the magic happens, the place where we meet to collaborate, innovate and grow.

While going through 2020 has not been a walk in the park for anyone, it has pushed people and companies to reflect on what we want from life on every level. If we embrace this moment as a catalyst to reinvent the workspace and make it safer, more productive and a place where people can find a shared purpose, there’s no limit to what we can achieve. Now is the time to plan ahead and take action.

Photo by:   Alvaro Villar