Ultimately, the physical impact of the coronavirus itself may turn out to be less significant than the financial crash that has accompanied it. After the last recession, an initial round of layoffs meant that space per worker actually increased at first—fewer people left to take up space in the office. As companies began to renegotiate their commercial leases in the years after the financial crash, they often asked for smaller spaces, to the point that a disparity in square foot per worker grew between the companies near the end of their leases and those at the beginning. The recession left commercial real estate underutilized, and made landlords more amenable to the cut-rate deals requested by coworking start-ups like WeWork.
If a recession persists, the decade-long trend toward remote work might continue for all the same reasons as before. With so many jobs done somewhat successfully from home during the pandemic, the justifications for having an office in the first place seem less persuasive. It is an open question how permanent that transition will be—some industries had adapted to remote work long before the pandemic, while others have lagged. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that something profound has shifted.
“Labor statistics have a tendency to move pretty slowly and pretty methodically,” said Jeff Wald, the CEO of WorkMarket, a software company that helps companies manage freelance workers. “In the last decade, remote workers went from 2% to 3% of the workforce, and that felt like a huge shift. Before all this, I would have said we’d see it go from 3% to 4% in the next decade, because all the low-hanging fruit has been picked.” But because so much new infrastructure has been deployed in the last few months, he thinks the remote workforce will remain larger even after the threat has passed.
Despite that, Wald still sees a role for offices—even open ones—once this has passed. “Sure, I can be more productive at home, because I can crank through things,” he said. “But offices will always remain a perk.” To Wald, a company’s mission is reflected in their workspace and the money they spend on it, and even if a physical space is used less, company culture is still going to be a part of employee recruitment.
“The last decade saw the home migrate to the office,” said Amol Sarva, the CEO of Knotel, which furnishes and manages office space for other corporations. He cited the proliferation of couches, cafes, and communal space that marks the modern-day activity-based office. His prediction for the long term is that coronavirus will again shift the balance between work and home. “Offices are going to become more office-like.”
As some states start to reopen and many are desperate for a sense of normalcy, a return to office life is still low-priority. The open plan was meant to foster creativity and collaboration, but true togetherness is impossible as long as we’re still regarding each other primarily as disease vectors. People are tired of open offices, and if they were already mainly using Slack to talk anyway, what’s the point of coughing on each other in the same space?
Though the modern open office was often hailed as millennial bait, it’s the strategies that younger employees have used to resist it that might make the most difference in the long run. Companies have come and gone in the 50 years the open plan took to conquer America, but the philosophy behind it never met a serious challenge—until white-collar workers figured out how to collaborate without face-to-face contact. It’s too soon to tell when offices will feel safe again, or what interventions will take them there. If the open office doesn’t return, it will be because we decide to kill it.
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