There is a flood of professional speculation about working from home (WFH) arising from the changed office life during and after the COVID pandemic. Real estate analysis, venture capitalists, designers, urbanists, and more all pitching their theories.
This comes at the tail end of the WeWork debacle, whose rise and fall both created shock in the business communities involved in the development, design, deployment and re-deployment of office space.
This is a live and lively debate because there's not a small amount at stake: the cost and value of commercial-zoned land and property leases, the financial model from commercial space, even the nature of worklife, and the future of cities, whose historic centres often form around office space.
In future analysis, I'll share analysis on the office as location, format and formulations of work. But for now, just notes on WFH.
Some large companies initially tech but now including others - Twitter, Shopify, Facebook, Nationwide insurance, Morgan Stanley - have started planning for a permanently remote workforce post-COVID.
The shift is important, but it's mistaken to assume that how remote work took place during the pandemic - largely WFH, either legally or pragmatically enforced, or just the most obvious option - is the only or even main future of remote work. It's just not likely that it is.
Working remotely from a corporate office is not happening in isolation: it's just another inflow to a fragmented mobile workforce, which already includes the knowledge gig economy, non-industrial startups, and already increasingly mobile, digital and flexible workers.
So the fascination and frustration with WFH, which has so richly textured the COVID experience for many, should not be the main focus. In fact the experiences of working from home during COVID have been an intensive experiment to filter kinds of things that will make remote work not just as good as classic office life but better, at least in part by better balancing home and work life.
A work space that is better than home:
- private and secure work space
- good technology and tech support
- access to meeting facilities and tech
- neutral and impersonal environments
- intensive collaboration with colleagues and partners
- serendipitous exposure to relevant people and issues
- motivational environment
- psychological separation of professional and private
A work space that is better than the office:
- near to home, less or no commuting
- spontaneous interaction with children, partner, neighbours
- teamwork with partner, family, neighbours
- exposure to nature
- engagement in neighbourhood routines and cultures
- involvement in community institutions
- cultivation of new skills and attitudes
- better prioritization and limit setting
So WFH-enforcement phase of remote work has put light on not just the value of corporate office space, it's brought attention to how people want to balance work and homelife in a more concrete, not just aspirational sense.
This learning, and the flood of companies now opting for remote work, opens to the door to remote work that is not work from home. How this will look, where it will be, is an open question that deserves more attention, given the scale of the opportunity.
There's a fantasy of working 'from anywhere' now that remote work is becoming more of an option. But maybe the best option is to have access to a private or shared workspace in your residential building, or block, that is also used by workers if not from the same company then from related or relevant areas.
Or, let's assume, as I do, that technical solutions to COVID, if only partial like masks and better ventilation, will arise soon enough to increasingly allow office-life to resume: maybe then you, a remote worker, want access to a flexible, managed but professional working environment that, it has to be said, is a lot like a WeWork always intended to be.
However it may be, a pure WFH dynamic of remote work is just the first phase of the unbundling of the office, and the least likely to be sustained or sustainable. Yet what's next, particularly if it does blend the benefits of closer homelife engagement with the spatial, technical organizational planning of worklife, has not been very clearly imagined yet.