November 20, 2023
It’s March 2020, very early days of lockdowns and the first catastrophising headlines appear. Is this the death of the office? Is this the death of handshakes? Is this the death of the open plan? I dismissed them at the time in this piece from March the 19th, citing Betteridge’s Law which states: “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no”.
This Law is not always true, of course, but it’s not far off. You’d think headline writers would have knocked it off by now, after three and a half years of hearing the same call and response to the same bloody questions. Doubly so for those who work in the niche corners of the professional media.
But no. Here we are. Doomed like Phil Connors to be woken each day by the same refrain, although this time we are currently in a death-of-hybrid-working-phase that will switch back as soon as the right piece of news about one company comes along. Being woken by UB40’s version of I’ve Got You Babe rather than Sonny and Cher’s is no relief.
And the exception that prove the rule:
The root cause of this oscillation is probably an overcorrection after all this time in which the most laundered ideas were that everybody would work from home now and offices would have to close. In the past couple of weeks firms such as HSBC, Wise and Lloyds have committed to leases on large spaces in London. Many firms have already been down this path.
But far from signalling the death of flexible working, these moves are taking place in a much-changed landscape for working culture and offices. There is some evidence that we have reached a sort of equilibrium, although how long that will last remains to be seen.
According to Nick Bloom’s latest update, Evolution of Working from Home, the proportions of time people spend working from home and in the office have stabilised at around 28 percent, although these figures can vary enormously.
Not by coincidence the UK civil service has announced it would like people to work in an office for around 60 percent of the time and this aligns with a lot of current thinking. Again, whether this is the right proportion depends and a blanket figure may not align with what is needed.
To take one side of this, a recent session of the Treasury Committee was told that remote working can add a year to the completion time for major projects. Conversely, there are many people whose jobs do not necessarily entail proximity.
You have to hope that we have reached a more stable point. No doubt the media will continue to fixate on stupid, meaningless trends like ‘coffee badging’ before dropping them as they did ‘quiet quitting’, ‘The Great Resignation’ and all the rest. No doubt it will continue to ask stupid questions which can almost always be swiped away with one iron Law.
The reality is that things are much changed, and much the same. This is neither the death of the office or the death of hybrid working, but the creation of something new.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.