In the Future, the Office Will Be Like a Coffee Shop

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Public Domain. Edward Lloyd's Coffee House/ National Maritime Museum

Another way the coronavirus may change office design.

Many years ago I wrote In the Future, Everything Will Be A Coffee Shop, which is in fact where offices started in the past, the most famous being Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, where people came to write insurance policies, and which became Lloyd's of London. I quoted Stephen Gordon, who wrote in the Speculist almost a decade ago:

The need for offices grew as the equipment for mental work was developed starting in the late 19th century. That need appears to have peaked about 1980. It was a rare person who could afford the computers, printers, fax machines, and mailing/shipping equipment of that time. Now a single person with $500 can duplicate most of those functions with a single laptop computer. So the remaining function of the office is to be that place that clients know to find you... and that kids and the other distractions of home can’t.
Pizza time at Dotdash

© Pizza time at Dotdash

I noted that for people whose job is to push buttons on keyboards, "in fact, the major purpose of an office now is to interact, to get around a table and talk, to schmooze. Just what you do in a coffee shop." That's why so many modern offices have these wonderful big tables and an endless supply of food and drink. Now that TreeHugger is part of the Dotdash team, the current head office looks very much like that, with generous sitting areas and places to sit and shmooze, or stand and eat pizza.

Pretty soon, however, all these places to meet might have a bigger role to play. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Andrea Yu talks to Dan Boram of Aura, a design firm in Vancouver. He describes many of the design features that we have mentioned before, like touchless switches and more space between workers, but also that even after the virus is gone, things will not go back to the way they were before.

But Mr. Boram believes the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on office design aren’t just in health and safety measures, because of the success of teleworking. “People will continue to work from home as much as four days a week and the office will become a destination for the things that can’t be done from home, like socializing, innovating, problem-solving, training and building culture,” Mr. Boram explains.

This is the key point. Tom Peters used to call it "management by walking around," where you wanted people all together, doing what they were doing. Now they are finding that they can do management by Zooming around, and are reconsidering the cost of all that real estate. Yu continues:

With desks taking up as much as 70 percent of traditional office spaces, independent work such as checking e-mails or writing reports could be done from home, which means businesses can reduce costs by downsizing their square footage.

CEOs of companies are all rethinking their office needs: "We no longer see a future where everyone is confined to an office desk unless there are clear reasons or preferences to do so.”

having a yak at Dotdash

© having a yak at Dotdash

Adi Gaskell writes in Forbes about how attitudes have changed so radically and so quickly because of the coronavirus. He quotes a survey of real estate professionals finding that "around 2/3 of respondents had a better impression of remote working than was previously the case, which perhaps highlights some of the outdated thinking that was prevalent in the sector."

“The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming working practices, with huge ramifications for the property market," Andrew Roughan, managing director at Plexal, says. "Remote working has become a necessity for the majority of workers, and it’s shown businesses – some of which might have been skeptical about allowing staff to work from home – that it is possible to maintain productivity and communication."

Fully ten years ago, in June 2010, Seth Godin wrote:

If we were starting this whole office thing today, it's inconceivable we'd pay the rent/time/commuting cost to get what we get. I think in ten years the TV show 'The Office' will be seen as a quaint antique.
When you need to have a meeting, have a meeting. When you need to collaborate, collaborate. The rest of the time, do the work, wherever you like.

It is funny that it took almost exactly ten years for his prediction to come true. The traditional office is now a quaint antique.