The interior of a modern office, with large glass windows, wooden floors and white desks.
Image: © victor zastol'skiy /

Does the centralised office have a future?

25 May 2020

There are still many challenges to overcome for the remote working revolution, but it could be far more rewarding than subjecting employees to a sterile post-Covid workplace, writes Elaine Burke.

We are now approaching three months since companies in Ireland began sending employees to work from home in order to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Soon after the big tech companies made the call, it became a Government-mandated requirement for most businesses and the reluctant remote working revolution began.

In the past two weeks, some of the first companies to send employees home have announced extensions to their remote working policies. Employees of Twitter and Square – both helmed by Jack Dorsey – will have the option to continue this practice forever, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he expects half of the company’s employees to work from home over the next five to 10 years. Workers at Spotify and the majority at Google won’t be back in the office until 2021 and, in extending his company’s policy, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke called the last rites on “office centricity”.

It marks a dramatic shift and a glimpse of the post-Covid working world. And while we still don’t know exactly what shape this will take, something that we all seem to agree on is that it won’t exactly resemble what has gone before.

You say you want a revolution

Revolutionising the workforce, however, isn’t easy. Change is difficult and being a pioneer is risky. As a tentative approach, many companies expanding their remote working policies are planning for a hybrid model where a central office will still have a role.

However, in the short term, this means creating a safe workplace for those who either choose to go back to the office, or are required to.

Is Covid-proofing the office workable? Derek Thompson’s vision of the Covid-proof office space published recently in The Atlantic draws on a 50-point plan shared by the South Korean government. This image of isolated cubicles, solo lunches, partitioned workers wearing face coverings, and strict limitations on concentrated indoor gatherings – such as the everyday office meeting – is a bleak one that makes the return to the workplace seem like an unnecessary risk.

“Until we have a vaccine, and perhaps even after, many workers may determine that if they’re going to feel as alone in the office as they do at home, there’s no point to commuting in the first place,” wrote Thompson.

Any return to office work will be far from a return to normalcy. The open-plan, interactive and flexible workspaces we were becoming accustomed to will have to be thoroughly transformed. Additional measures such as widespread testing and temperature checks might add to this unpleasant post-Covid office experience.

While working from home comes with its own burdens – particularly at present without childcare or other supports in place – at least you are likely shouldering the weight in the relative comfort of a safe space you call your own.

Culture commentary

One of the strongest arguments for reuniting workers in shared spaces is the reignition of office culture. How can you have a workplace culture without a workplace? Well, for advice on this we can look to those who have long been leading the remote work charge.

Remote-first companies set the example that culture is not confined to a location, although this may be a crutch for many. “The majority of CEOs who ran office-based businesses before the pandemic and didn’t invest in their culture unknowingly relied on their office space environment to hold their unwritten culture together,” tweeted CultureGene founder Bretton Putter.

According to Putter, workplace leaders who have taken human proximity, camaraderie and informal communications for granted are in for a rude awakening when it comes to creating an effective work culture without these organic office elements. What’s evolving requires “a lot more focus, thought and effort”, Putter said.

New risks, new rewards

Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of all-remote company GitLab, has been sharing some of his remote working advice on Twitter, including the need to be intentional about informal communication.

In a remarkably thorough thread about the future of remote work after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, Sijbrandij predicted “a trough of sorrow due to hybrid not working out, and most companies will return to being office-based. But many all-remote companies will see success”.

The challenges of the hybrid model, Sijbrandij warned, is that it can seem like an easier solution that turns out to be wildly difficult. Even with the best of intentions, the hybrid model can create divisions among employees and wherever the leadership lies – either with the remote team or the office-based team – the other side will suffer.

“Employees will discover that the company didn’t make the shift from rewarding attendance to rewarding output, and that remote workers are not getting promoted at an equal rate because they are less visible,” he claimed.

There are other remote working divides that can arise. For example, a study from University College Cork suggested that the greater Dublin area is better insulated against an oncoming economic shock due to a higher proportion of people having jobs where remote working is a viable option. Regions that aren’t nearly as shockproof are more dependent on sectors with a lower potential for effective social distancing and remote working, such as tourism and hospitality.

Regional inequalities in remote working are also compounded by the ongoing infrastructural issue of reliable high-speed internet connectivity.

Shopify CEO Lütke is already shouting about the talent opportunity that a remote workforce opens up. “There are silver linings: we now have the opportunity to be joined by a whole lot of incredible individuals from around the world that otherwise couldn’t because of our previous default to proximity,” he tweeted.

Location-agnostic remote roles will open recruitment nets wider than ever before. A whole world of talent could be available to your business, if you can enable it.

However, Grow Remote founder Tracy Keogh has highlighted how difficult it is to even effectively advertise remote job listings on popular platforms that have yet to adapt to this movement. Grow Remote makes remote work visible via its local chapters, but the world of job posting needs to catch up quickly to the changing world of work.

Whether hybrid or not, the post-Covid workforce is not likely to completely return to the office. In a poll posted by South East Business Innovation Centre, webinar participants were asked “how do you plan to work for the rest of the year when the lockdown ends?” and less than half (41pc) said they would return to the office.

Tweeting the results, South East BIC declared “the future of work is changing”.

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Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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