Our cities and offices will go through radical change during this crisis, and will emerge as more enjoyable places for us all

jack pringle grey

Covid-19 hit us like the Chicxulub asteroid struck the dinosaurs’ world and just like the asteroid, covid-19 will wipe out our dinosaur businesses and practices. The survivors will be cloud-based, location independent, digital and agile whether they are a bakers or bankers. But how will the 40+% of us that used to work in offices work in the future?

This pandemic is a disruptor and begs several big questions; what is a home, office or even a city for? Where do we want to live and work? Should we be pandemic ready? This is our first recent pandemic, but it is the Far East’s third. Will we have constant relapses until a vaccine is rolled out and how long will that take? One, maybe more years?

After every big recession there is a leap forward using what we have learnt and what we have aspired to in the tough times

After a strange period of social distance working and the inevitable deep recession that will follow it we will recover and rebuild our economies, we always do and after every big recession there is a leap forward using what we have learnt and what we have aspired to in the tough times.

We have all had a crash course in shopping online and working from home (WFH) with variable results for the latter. One client told me his finance team WFH had a productivity bounce, a junior said she finally felt trusted by her manager and some genuinely like it, after all what is the point of flogging into the office to do  mails or write a report?

But others have suffered. Junior staff stuck in a rented bedroom in a shared flat do not see that as the career lifestyle they signed up for, and they do not get the on the job training that sitting in an office absorbing all that is going on gives. A lot yearn for variety, human interaction and company and there have been mental health problems. Some types of work need, face-to-face collaboration to get truly creative, innovative results from the combined talents of a team. And if you are starting a business or a new venture, don’t you want your team around you to motivate them?

The pre-covid trend to the social of office will be turbo-charged. The office, as ever, will be a potent tool in the talent war

Reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated - but it will be revived differently. Right now, nobody has an appetite for a long commute in a crowded train, tube or bus especially when its followed by a packed lift to an office in a high rise. Lift-phobia is going to be a real challenge for our tall buildings. So, it’s likely that we will see a lot more WFH.

But the office will still be important, in city centres or maybe in satellite hubs which you can walk or cycle to. The office is where you will go to meet people, to get to know them, to have creative thought, to gain knowledge, to get trained, to be inspired, to inspire - to have a good time. The pre-covid trend to the social of office will be turbo-charged. The office, as ever, will be a potent tool in the talent war. Here’s a thought; will a first class graduate want to join a firm which gives them a great laptop, a £1000 to fit out their home office and an on-line training course, or will they want to join an office with a vibrant community with a common purpose? However, I do not think we are going to want to sit in serried ranks 1.6m apart as there will be a psychological hang over from social distancing, but there will be no need for that as a good proportion of the firm will be WFH thus creating space in the office which will allow us to design a new office paradigm.

The city itself maybe repurposed, with much better “active transport” (walking or cycling) routes in and out and broad pavements for alfresco lunching. The city has never been just a white-collar factory. Its always been a place of interaction and exchange. A place of cultures from pubs and restaurants to theatres and the opera. The city has been the great success story of the 21st century as more than half the world’s population has been drawn to live in one, with good reason. People want to live rich fulfilling lives and working, playing and living in cities delivers that. More and more we blur our work and social life, so the city is itself a workplace.

Perhaps covid-19 will liberate office workers from the tyranny of the long commute just to be seen to work. We can enjoy our days WFH or at a local hub and equally we can enjoy joining our office community in a ratio that is right for us and what we do.

The office and the city will be reborn phoenix like from coronavirus’s ashes to be smarter, more efficient and more enjoyable.

Jack Pringle is principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will