By Julian

Sitting alone, in our recently fitted out office in South Melbourne less than one week into Melbourne’s six-week lockdown makes me wonder: do I actually need this office?

Yes, absolutely.

The views on working from home are polarising – people either love it or hate it. In the WFH camp are those who rave about the convenience, the simplicity of online meetings, the increased productivity, the travel time saved and the ability to quickly put on a load of washing or walk the dog.

But in the other camp are those that miss the social aspect of ‘going to work’, the serendipitous micro-meetings on the way to the kitchen, the lack of distraction and the strange connection people feel to the physical building and location that puts them in the ‘work zone’.

Photo credit: @austindistel

Prior to the introduction of mandatory lockdown and work from home arrangements, the trend for office space was to enhance the offering as a way of attracting and retaining great talent. Creating the ‘Google-esque’ office environment of communal spaces and smaller hubs for ‘ideation’ blended with café style dining areas and spa resort style change rooms was a selling point that gave organisations a compelling and competitive employee value proposition to make them an employer of choice.

But that was pre-COVID – an eternity ago – and for the last few months I haven’t seen too many Google-esque offices on my Zoom meetings. Most people are hiding from their kids in their makeshift spare room office with a toddler banging on the door, minimal natural light and a dust covered rowing machine in the corner.

The challenges with returning to offices are confronting. The logistics alone of (re)entering a big building at peak times is going to be tough. The recommended four square metre per person and 1.5 metre social distancing rules will significantly reduce desk and meeting room occupancy and make safely moving around buildings, lifts and communal areas challenging. Multi-storey corporate office blocks are getting ‘mothballed’ the way companies used to store large inventory like aircraft and heavy machinery. Public transport is out of favour and parking in any of the capitals is painful and expensive and sometimes impossible.

The ability to separate work from home life is absolutely critical and something most find difficult. So, what happens when there is no physical separation?

Most of us have adjusted to the home office set up with the idea that it was temporary. Most Australians want to get back into the office and we’ve been able to mentally and physically cope with WFH arrangements under the assumption that things would be back to normal soon enough. But realistically, how many of us are set up to do this long term?

Many are hanging out for the community aspect of the workplace; the workshopping of ideas without the frozen screen or sudden drop out, being able to read the body language of the person in front of you and being able to ask a quick question or discuss a point with your colleagues in-situ.

Recruitment, training, inductions, Friday lunches, unscheduled coffee catch ups, checking in with someone who seems a little off…building a sense of community takes human interaction and while not impossible, is extremely difficult to pull off through a digital screen.

So much of an organisation’s identity is reflected in the workplace. It’s where we bring our clients, it’s where we collaborate and it’s part of who we are. The physical workplace is effectively a reflection of our organisational culture.

The future of workplaces will be a mix of both. More time from home is guaranteed, but the notion the office market is dead isn’t true. It’s definitely wounded, but COVID hasn’t altered the kind of environment required to make a high-performance, connected office culture.