Offices are not going anywhere
I’ve been working in a remote-first company for four years and leading a fully distributed team for the last two. We still have the office in Vilnius, but most of us have been working from home (WFH) long before lockdowns.
It was interesting to see remote work go mainstream so fast out of necessity during lockdowns last year. The surprising part is how many people are now proclaiming we’re never going back.
In that sense, remote work already won - it’s a reasonable expectation now, not just a perk. I don’t believe anyone can take that away.
I also do not believe it will be enough to kill the office as we know it.
We’re not even close to having solved remote communication. Startups scrambled to reinvent the video chat using gimmicks. Having tried some of them, I don’t believe they have the answers. The real problem is that every remote interaction has to be deliberate - even water cooler talk must be scheduled in advance. I don’t have a solution. Some of us are okay with not having this form of communication, but once you’re used to it, it’s hard to give away. We will develop better tools and practices eventually, but it’s gonna take years, not mere months.
Most people don’t have a proper home office or even space for it. Me and my SO lived through the first lockdown in a single-room apartment. It was an okay apartment to come back to in the evening. It was totally insufficient for 2 people to work from every day. There simply wasn’t enough space - one of us had to work hunched over the kitchen table. Thankfully, we moved to a 3-room apartment in the summer (planned long before ‘rona), where we finally have a home office. When the second lockdown hit, we were much better prepared.
Many cannot suddenly upgrade their homes - they are stuck choosing between the sofa and the kitchen chair. Those people are eager for offices to reopen, commute be damned. Eventually home offices will become a selling point for new housing, similar to EV charging stations right now. Retrofitting the existing housing for remote work will also become common.
Finally, we still don’t know whether WFH is a good deal for the employer. Common sense says it should be - you get a bigger pool of employees to choose from, and you save office costs. Some claim that remote work increases productivity, but that comes from self-reported data. We’re gonna need bigger and better studies to make conclusions. Until then remote work will be much more of a political and cultural decision than a financial one.
It also doesn’t have to be black or white. Many companies will embrace a hybrid approach with some days in the office for meetings with the colleagues and clients, and then WFH the rest of the time. Hot desking is already a thing and will likely go mainstream. This would be an easier sell to management and deal with communication challenges.
These points apply in short to mid term. WFH has been slowly gaining traction for decades, and Covid just accelerated it. Some researchers estimate hours worked from home will go from 5% before pandemic to 25% after. Still, new office buildings are going up and they will likely be occupied for decades.
The situation is quite similar to electrical vehicles. We’ve had modern production EVs for a decade now: Nissan Leaf launched in 2010, Tesla Model S in 2012, BMW i3 in 2013. Internal combustion has been pronounced dead many times over, and yet gas-powered vehicles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
To quote William Gibson, “The future is already here—It’s just not very evenly distributed “. Let’s not forget that adoption curve has a long tail.