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STATE OF PLAY

Covid-19 upended the office, but it might have created something better

Ana Cuna for Quartz
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated

Before the pandemic, there were plenty of reasons to be in the office. Scheduled collaboration, and chance meetings that sometimes proved fruitful. The opportunity to socialize with colleagues, for a casual five minutes or an extended lunch break. Some modicum of distance, however long the commute might be, enforced between work life and personal time.

But in truth, a lot of us came to the office because our employers treated it as the main “proof” that we were working. We were paid to show up and so we did, even as the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial era meant that, for many jobs, there was no longer a physical reason to gather: No machines to work, other than the laptop and the coffee maker. No physical product to create or pack or manipulate. Sometimes that demand for face time was policed by companies unwilling to allow for home-working. Sometimes it was cultural: We felt watched by and responsible to our colleagues, even if they were never in fact judging us.

As a result, many of us resented the office to at least some degree—it was too hot or too cold, too noisy, too far from home. Many pushed back against the imperative to be there all the time, nudging resistant bosses and norms in an attempt to make life more flexible and the non-work parts of it—like picking up kids from school—more manageable. Now the tables have dramatically turned. Forced to work from home suddenly and in vast numbers by the global Covid-19 pandemic, many former office workers are realizing that there are truly things they miss about that space.

The office as a place of work isn’t disappearing. But the pandemic has changed our concept of the office to such an extent that it’s unlikely to return to pre-Covid-19 normal. In part that’s because we’re now aware of the risks to which our previous behavior exposed us—in terms of both our physical health and to our wider wellbeing. In part, it’s because the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already reforming our relationships with work, time, and the workplace.

Right now, companies across the world and across industries are in the throes of discovering what “the office” means to them. Some are making plans to return, while others are preparing to leave the office behind for good.

Meanwhile some of us—often the youngest cohorts—can’t wait to get back to the office. Others—the majority—favor a mixed future where office time is available but by no means mandatory. And some of us are facing a changed reality, in which home working is the shape of things to come, and offices, like much of the technology that defined them—photocopiers, elevators, even traditional desk chairs—will become an ever-more-blurry memory.

So what will the office of the future be like? The fear is that a more stressful commute will bring us back to spaces that are scarier and more sterile than before, and we’ll never get back the office at its cozy, collaborative best. But perhaps there’s a better future in store, one in which companies are galvanized to truly change, and make more humane, the way they judge staff output. Maybe when we choose to go back to the office it will be on new and much more flexible terms, and with renewed appreciation for the unique things it has to offer.

Table of contents

A brief history of the office | A WFH skeptic no longer | Who misses the office? | Leaving the office behind | Planning to go back | The office in 2023

A brief history of the office

We can look back to the industrial revolution as the time when work changed from being individual, ad hoc, and unstructured, to a much more time-boxed and regular activity with, for example, a working week and a weekend. But the office as a recognizable entity probably didn’t arise until we moved into a knowledge economy—a process that, globally, is far from over.

Back in 1992, James B. Appleberry, president emeritus of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, suggested in a speech:

“[t]he sum total of humankind’s knowledge doubled from 1750-1900. It doubled again from 1900-1950. Again from 1960-65. It has been estimated that the sum total of human knowledge has doubled at least every five years since then…It has been further projected that by the year 2020, knowledge will double every 73 days.”

No wonder office working has proliferated to the point where the image of a desk in a busy room is what pops into many of our minds when we think of the word “work.”

Between the 1950s and 1980s private, functional offices gave way to the era of generic cubicle working and packed open-plan floors. By the 2010s, a new era had arisen, exemplified by tech giants like Google and Facebook creating bespoke workspaces, and by WeWork, an office space provider which quickly grew, from its founding in 2010, to be the biggest leaser of office space in both New York and London.

WeWork’s offering was based, to a large extent, on community: the chance to be around a group of like-minded people, even if they weren’t part of the same company. It promoted collaboration and networking by offering kegs of beer and—as the recent Bloomberg podcast Foundering recounts—popular jars of “fruit water” (water augmented by pieces of fresh-cut fruit), around which workers and visitors tended to gather.

Aesthetics were also important. This new generation of office-goers would turn the workspace from a dull jumble of whiteboards and carpet tiles into an oasis filled with elegant furniture and plants. If the office was a pleasant place to be, the thinking went, people would find more inspiration there. Serendipitous conversations would happen, ideas would spark.

The move to prettier, more human-focused offices was pleasant—indeed, it might in part account for why younger workers, who are more likely to see the benefits of beer kegs and complimentary snacks, now report that they miss the office more than older people do. But this revolution had a downside. Allowing and indeed encouraging work to bleed into socializing meant an extension of the work day, and even less reason for people to finish up after eight or nine hours and go home. Phenomena were discussed like the “Google stone”—a stone is about 6.3kg—the weight gain associated with starting work at a company that offers abundant free food and encourages workers to stay around and eat it.

In a world where hanging out in groups indoors suddenly seems much less attractive, could it be this aspect of office life—the very developments of the latest era—that has to go? Or, on the flip side, could it be that run-of-the-mill individual work can easily be transferred to remote locations, and only collaboration, like the jewel in the office crown, is maintained and protected as a good reason to gather?

A WFH skeptic no longer

Frans van Hulle, CEO of PX, a customer acquisition platform for advertisers with about 50 staff in New York, Panama, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, is a self-described convert to the idea of remote working. Speaking via Zoom from Panama in June, van Hulle apologised for any connectivity issues—he was at the office to pick up some things, but the company had cancelled the internet connection to save costs—and for not having had a haircut for the past five months.

“I’m pretty old school, in the sense that you go to an office to work,” he said of his pre-pandemic attitude. “I was very against [a] working from home policy, and I’d been fighting that for a couple of years. It was a big wish of our New York team.” The problem was “trust issues,” he admitted—the main issue being his own ability to believe staff wouldn’t shirk their duties without the structure of an office environment around them. Finally he agreed to try home-based working one day every three weeks. Less than a month later, lockdowns began.

But van Hulle has been surprised by how good the move has felt. After all, he was already remote from most of his teams. “It leveled the playing field for me, personally, because suddenly everyone was remote, which I thought was very refreshing,” he said. The company has stepped up its check-ins, and implemented a weekly all-hands call which he says has been “fantastic” for keeping everyone up to speed, while the increased communication is also having the effect of keeping him better informed. Every week the company also showcases someone who has done well, and has a “happy hour” for more relaxed chatting—even though the challenge of timezones means Panama joins at 8am when it’s already 4pm in Ukraine. The company has begun using software to track email response times, “not to police people,” van Hulle said, but rather to help keep track of staff engagement.

He also says that seeing people’s individual lives has made him appreciate his staff more, including those with tricky home/work challenges. Two staff members had to set up home offices on their balconies, he said, because of a lack of space and quiet. The company has tried to help out both by being flexible, and with budgets for equipment like noise-cancelling headphones. To try and weather the impact on revenue, the whole company agreed to a temporary paycut. As of late June they’d managed to furlough just one person and move the office manager to part-time. (Update: PX staff had returned to full pay by Aug. 10)

The transformation in van Hulle’s attitude echoes what many company leaders and managers are saying. While companies were gradually incorporating more flexibility into their approach, working from home on a really massive scale seemed unfeasible and non-ideal until Covid-19 struck. Now, with proof that it’s possible and brings with it some unexpected benefits, there’s a much greater appetite for its continuance, which could bring cost savings as well as better work-life balance and other perks. 

Who misses the office?

Of course, not everyone shares van Hulle’s enthusiasm for remote work.

Bulb is a UK renewable energy company that’s rapidly expanding: Between March 16, 2020, when the company went all-remote, and July, it onboarded 142 new people, including 30 on the first day.

But despite having plenty of tools already in place that made moving to remote work relatively painless, Tom Fraine, Bulb’s chief people officer, said the company missed the office and would reopen, for at least some staff, as soon as was safely possible.

Speaking via Google Meet from London, Fraine said the importance of the office is connected to the company’s youthfulness: It’s been operating for four-and-a-half years, and the average employee age is 26. Many staff are in their first job. “The office has played a really important role, because we believe very strongly in the learning effects of being part of a team,” Fraine said. “When we think about things like how we distribute our teams in the office, we mix teams up, so no matter which team you’re working in you can hear a member of the service team” speaking to customers, he said. That level of serendipity and connection between colleagues has been lost to the lockdowns, he says.

Young generations entering the workforce have made it clear that flexibility is key to their loyalty, in many cases more important than pay. Having grown up with mobile phones and constant internet access, they’re fully aware that most jobs in a knowledge economy can be done from almost anywhere. Yet several surveys conducted since the start of the pandemic show that it’s younger workers who are missing the office most.

Leaving the office behind

Some companies, meanwhile, have decided they never need an office again. Skift, a news site for the travel industry, said in May it would give up its Manhattan office space. London law firm Slater & Gordon said that same month that its 200 staff would work from home permanently. Andala, a developer outsourcing company that went remote as a result of the pandemic, said it would now hire from across Africa instead of limiting its recruiting to the six countries—Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, and Egypt—where it either had offices or already had been operating remotely.

Many other companies, meanwhile, have said they’ll be going back, but not for the foreseeable future. In late July, Google became the first tech giant to formally announce that it wouldn’t make any move back to the office for at least a year.

But while staying remote might seem easier right now than going back safely, it comes with its own headaches. In May, Facebook was one of the first big tech companies to announce it would allow many of its employees to work from home permanently. Twitter followed suit, as did Slack, an online communications company, and Square, a mobile payments firm. But Facebook also quickly caused an outcry when it said salaries would be adjusted lower if staff moved to cheaper areas than, for example, its Silicon Valley base.

Paying people less in cheaper areas wasn’t fair, if they had the same skills as those in more expensive places, critics said, and could exacerbate or perpetuate existing salary inequities. Facebook pointed out that a similar policy already exists both at the firm and at many other companies, where people who live and work in expensive cities are paid a premium for doing so.

One fascinating recent development in how companies plan to employ people in future stems from the confluence of the Covid-19 crisis, which mandated mass home-working, and the Black Lives Matter movement brought to the fore by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At the same moment that companies are allowing many people to work remotely for the first time, some, like New York-based nonprofit Fractured Atlas, have also realized that geography-specific hiring practices—insisting that a staff member work from London or Singapore, for example—is a barrier to diversity, because often the candidates who can afford to live in such hubs, or relocate to them, are white and privileged.

Planning to go back

Like many workers, Mary Bilbrey found herself, back in spring 2020, leaving the office for an indeterminate amount of time with very little warning. “We left in a hurry…My shoes are still there,” she told Quartz via WebEx in July. But Bilbrey also has a particular vantage point for assessing the impact of the subsequent work-from-home era, and the future of office space: She heads up human resources for JLL, a corporate real estate firm with a global workforce of 94,000 people, and she also oversees the company’s corporate offices. This dual responsibility for people and places makes sense and is becoming more common, Bilbrey said, because for many companies “there’s a real connection between the talent strategy and the workplace strategy.”

Lockdowns forced the closure of JLL premises across continents. But as restrictions eased, Bilbrey and her team began the process of reopening, starting in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. By the start of July 2020 they had reopened 240 offices globally, and were targeting 100 in the Americas by the end of the month. (By July 24, JLL had 132 US offices open, the company said in an update.)

A number of guidelines are beginning to appear about how to safely reopen, including several stemming from companies’ direct experience. Bilbrey found herself in charge of the need to create an experience for returning employees that felt “both safe and comforting,” while at the same time navigating the complexity of guidelines which differed widely from country to country and state to state, and even sometimes between jurisdictions within a state. The experience has made her something of a global expert, right now, in how to reopen—albeit, given JLL’s position as a major real estate manager, one with skin in the game. She broke down the learnings into three key takeaways:

There is no one-size-fits-all. “We learned very quickly that we all experience this crisis very individually and very personally,” Bilbrey said. Deciding just who should return needed careful case-by-case planning, taking into account everything from an individual’s commute to their care-giving responsibilities, with local leaders given training in how to support staff. The company needed to “provide for those conversations with leaders to recognize [that while] you have one set of circumstances, your employees all have unique circumstances,” Bilbrey explained.

Space has to be safe, but not forbidding. Areas needed to be demarcated to create social distancing, and avoid collision in places like hallways. But Bilbrey said JLL also tried hard to make the spaces feel inviting, for example by creating signage that pointed out safety features but also said “welcome back.” In several cases the company made videos so that staff could view the reconfigured space before returning, “to take the mystery out of it,” Bilbrey said.

There’s a minimum number of people, as well as a maximum. “The reason that people wanted to be back was to see colleagues…and [for] collaboration, and a place where they could be more innovative,” Bilbrey said. If workers return only to sit alone and stare at a screen, they’re missing the point of being in the same place at all.

Rob Falzon, vice chair of Prudential Financial, helped oversee the March transition of the insurance giant’s 22,000 workers to remote work, and is thinking a lot about their staged, gradual return.

“In our view, the workplace has to reflect the future of work,” Falzon said via video call from his home in the US. “And the future of work is about leveraging technology, obviously. It allows us to get more out of talent and incidentally allows us to do more remotely.”

He envisages a future in which Prudential will likely need much less office space in total, but will need more, proportionally, for collaboration. “So when we come together, what the workplace has to allow us to do is actually do the things that we need to do together. It’s about collaboration, it’s about innovation,” he said, at which point there was a flurry of barking somewhere offscreen. “Sorry, my son’s dog’s in the background,” he continued: “Ideation, building relationships, enhancing culture. You can’t do that if you’re limiting the number of people that can get together and everyone’s staying six feet apart.”

The office in 2023

Deutsche Bank, which has been surveying market professionals every month since April, found in its July poll that 65% believe they’ll work from home for between one and three days a week in a post-Covid world, while 70% said they were more productive working from home.

Adecco Group, a Fortune Global 500 human resources company, released research at the end of June showing that three quarters of workers globally wanted a mix of office and remote work to become the new norm. Its poll of 1,000 office workers in each of eight countries covering Australia, Europe, and the US, found that the work pattern most people wanted was to spend 51% of their time in the office, and 49% remote.

However you’re finding the transition, chances are that some elements of it are here to stay.

“As many countries emerge from the acute crisis phase of the pandemic, employers have an opportunity to ‘hit reset’ on traditional workplace practices—many of which have remained largely unchanged since the industrial revolution,” Adecco CEO Alain Dehaze said in a statement announcing the firm’s findings.

And so, one balmy summer lunchtime in 2023, you meet up with a friend for sandwiches in a local park. You each walked from home, where you had spent the morning working. As you sip takeaway coffee and meander between the flowerbeds, your friend asks: What was your last office like?

You fall to reminiscing: your desk with its too-bright aspect and loud neighbor, the overactive air conditioner, quick tea breaks with colleagues, getting pulled into unnecessary meetings just because you were there. It seems like a long time ago. After all, when did you last commute into the city for five days straight? When was your last thousand-seat conference? When did you last find yourself working on a project into Friday evening, while the packed office around you softened into a fuzz of pre-weekend conversation, drinks, and dinner plans?

Your friend’s experience is different: They went into the office this week, masked on public transport, but just for a few hours. In a well-ventilated conference room, they shared individually packaged salads with colleagues and ideated from a now-normal one-meter distance.

Back at home, you wash your hands and check the time until your walk to pick up the kids. It’s nice to be close to the school. You avert your eyes from the wall that still needs painting, and back to the screen set up in a corner of the bedroom, then message a colleague, perhaps with a coffee cup or flower emoji to let them know you’re thinking of them.

Are you mourning for a time when the office was the de facto king of work culture? If companies have adapted well, probably not: You might well be working more productively, saving time, and still connecting with workmates, just more often via technology.

Coronavirus has cast presenteeism in a new light, forcing workers and their employers to ask: What are we willing to risk in order to maintain a culture which, many were already pointing out, neither benefited most employees nor, perhaps, provided an accurate measure either of productivity or engagement?

Risk existed before. Commuting has long been widely discussed as one of the most depressing aspects of worklife. Travel and social proximity always exposed us to more viruses, and other health risks like traffic accidents or even terrorist incidents. Offices, though they’ve adapted a lot in recent years, are also notorious places for lack of natural light and outdoor space, for long hours of sitting and screen time, all of which can contribute to less healthy, happy individuals.

Coronavirus, because the risk is acute rather than chronic, created a break in normality that forced changes for which many had long been advocating. But it has also highlighted, perhaps unexpectedly, what was good about office culture—because there’s no doubt that many people are missing their former lives, or at least aspects of them.

However much we pushed for flexibility, it seems, we weren’t ready for the office to disappear completely.

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