Economic shocks tend to accelerate existing trends. A pandemic seems to be following the pattern.
Confronting unprecedented global shutdowns, at one point this spring, more than half of all Americans were working from home — remarkable, consider that the previous high was just 5%. Contemporary cultural icons of the American workforce seemed to suggest it was the inevitable end of the office:
- Twitter offered all-remote
- Facebook said it expected half of its workforce to be remote
- Last week Google extended its full work-from-home plans through June 2021
It seemed to portend the end of the office — a concept that rose with the Industrial Revolution and has persisted since.
A funny thing happens with big changes, though. Prognosticators on either side of a binary — in this case, we’re destined to be all remote, or that the office is the only way to get business done — tend to blur into the middle. In this case, the pandemic might just be speeding what was already taking place: greater flexibility in the workplace that can retain the best of an office, while allowing for greater flexibility overall.
I’ve experienced this myself, as the CEO of a company with several reporters working remotely in other markets and a 15-person team working out of an office with a lease in a building. The pandemic and ensuing economic shock wreaked havoc on our plans and our finances. But rich with team culture, we’ve largely weathered going all remote. It’s certainly given me, and my coworkers, plenty of time to think: Is our office and the tens of thousands of dollars we spend in rent an investment, or an anachronistic waste of money?
To better understand what’s happening, this week’s TWIJ Show, a weekly interview series on building better companies, turned to two experts to answer the question: How (and why) should my company to return to the office?
One was commercial real estate veteran Jonathan Wasserstrum, who is the CEO and founder of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate platform startup that announced its $16 million Series B financing round last year. They have roughly 75 employees, most of whom would normally be split between Manhattan headquarters and a satellite office in Belfast. Wasserstrum is both navigating his company’s return and hearing from hundreds of their clients. His firm has just launched a Return to Work Toolkit.
I also spoke with Mayva Donnon. She’s a principal at KSS Architects, a full-service firm that has taken a keen interest on changes to office design and commercial real estate. Next week they’re hosting a deeper-dive webinar on why your company should return to the office.
Watch and listen below, featuring show notes.
Here are show notes:
- The future is flexibility — An office for “activity-based work” (like collaboration and creativity and building) can be made available for those employees who most benefit from it, with the flexibility, communication and scheduling to allow for more remote and asynchronous hours.
- Why is an office important? — Not every knowledge worker employee will have a great work-from-home option, even remote-only companies build culture in-person and we still do better creative work together.
- “If you don’t believe in the office, then figure out how to get rid of it,” said Wasserstrum. “If you do, you have to figure out how to get back into the office.”
- The biggest short-term obstacle is air quality — Many offices can space employees out and trial shifts but if it seems recirculated air is the biggest known method of transmission, how can we do this safely? More fresh air and better filtration seems best but is expensive, notes Donnon. Could companies ask their landlords to invest? Wasserstrum: “but you’ll get a full spectrum of answers,” depending on how much available space a landlord still has to rent.
“The only thing more dystopian than going to the office every single day,” said Wasserstrum,” is never going to the office ever again.”
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