Arts & Culture COVID-19

What will be the fate of the office as we know it?

We will not come out of this crisis and go back to ‘normal’.

By Kamla Sultan Alolama

Three years ago, I wrote a paper about the evolution of workspace design from the 1980s to the present.  It examined various design trends, and the philosophies, technologies, and other variables that instigated those trends and the consequences they held for the individuals involved.

Workspaces have a significant impact on various aspects of our daily lives. As a result, these spaces have seen many design changes over the years, shaped by various factors, and in turn shaping many aspects of work and societal norms, as well as creating new fields of design as a result.

The cubicle farms of the 1980s are a good example of this.  Cubicle farms have reportedly affected the physical and mental well-being of employees, in some cases resulting in bouts of rage that have sometimes escalated to violence,  in what came to be later known as ‘cube rage’.  With the philosophical zeitgeist of the 1980s, concepts of agency, influenced by the likes of Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and others, as well as new studies in the fields of design, psychology, ergonomics, and sociology, the workspace started to change.  This change was also sparked by the dawn of the Internet Age.

The Internet infiltrated the workspace and became a major player in this equation.  Redefining the concept of work, it led to a move towards more flexibility, be that in working hours or dress codes. It brought forth new trends that include the virtual office, hot-desking, casual offices, cafes as workspaces,as well as many others.

Internet connectivity revolutionised the office as well as the concept of work. This created a new ‘space’ where the ‘virtual presence coexists with the physical presence in the environment’.  Workers did not have to be physically present to work. The Internet, laptops, and mobile phones gave people the freedom to work from virtually any place.

However, despite the flexibility that the Internet brought about in many work environments , many of us were still in a ‘9-5’ working model (or other equivalents).  That is until the advent of the novel coronavirus.

The virus and the consequent lockdown of many cities to curb its spread, is affecting all fields of work.  Currently, countless people are working from home, confronted with the dichotomy of social distancing and digital interconnectivity.  What does this mean for workspaces? Is this a new paradigm shift?

Perhaps in a few months, and with the added benefit of hindsight, we will see this situation not as a paradigm shift on its own, but rather as a catalyst to speed up the outcomes of the shift that the Internet created in our work lives. But this will all depend on how long the situation will last, and how permanent those changes become.  With the new trends in the post-Internet workspace, a shift occurred in office dynamics, placing workers at the centre of the networked office.   In this case, there are bound to be new trends affected by most of us working from home, as well as new variables that will need to be taken into consideration when designing offices in the future.

We all saw Professor Robert Kelly’s BBC interview that went viral, with his little daughter adorably strutting into the room.  Family, I think might be one of the major players in the ‘workspace’.  I currently see many mothers working on their computers right next to their kids who are learning through their virtual classrooms.  ‘Home’ is seeping into the ‘office’, when it used to be that people ‘brought their work home’.  This might create a new set of issues, including balance issues, a reduced sense of privacy for one, and perhaps burnout for individuals juggling too many things that used to be delegated to other people.  On the other hand, it also means that we have more control over our working environments. Many people are creating niches for themselves that are more conducive to improved productivity, or to stimulate creativity, and will end up developing more efficient methods that work for them.

Efficiency, productivity or creativity, most businesses aim for one or more as an outcome of business processes, and outcomes might be another factor that changes in the immediate future.  Efficiency and productivity, often erroneously used interchangeably, are indisputably linked. Efficiency is concerned with the qualitative measure of work done, while productivity is quantitative. As Yves Morieux once said, ‘productivity is not everything but in the long run, it is almost everything’. Creativity, on the other hand, is a desired outcome by many workplaces that try to help employees think differently. ‘Everyone wants to occupy creative space; yet few people are aware of the importance that ‘place’ plays in the nurturing of the creative process,’ says Ivy Ross, Vice President of Design and User Experience for Hardware Products at Google.

This means that many workplaces may reevaluate the way they measure outcomes, based on the next few months.  This might result in further relaxing the 9-5 model, or perhaps in the way that outcomes are quantified.  Outcomes will also greatly be affected by mental wellbeing.  Let us not forget how cubicles, for example, impacted people’s lives.  We are currently witnessing firsthand how transient life could be.  Granted, we all knew that life is fleeting, but it is all very striking now with the great death toll of the pandemic. 

Also, despite our interconnectedness, we are paradoxically more socially disconnected than ever, and this will undoubtedly have physical and psychological implications that will affect many facets of our daily lives, not the least of which is work.  The next few months will decide the fate of the ‘office’ as we know it.  Whether or not this pandemic is a paradigm shift in the realm of work, we will not come out of this and go back to ‘normal’, whatever that was, and that is okay.  This will mean that work will evolve, and perhaps it is time for it to do so.  You are all currently charting the course of the future of work.  What does your future office hold for you?

Kamla Sultan Alolama is an Emirati designer and design historian. She holds an MA in Design History from the Royal College of Art in London. She is interested in ornament and pattern at the intersection of culture, art, design and craft. She is the founder of Designerly Diaries, an online design blog.

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