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The office is a relic from before COVID-19, and no longer needs to be the basic building block of a business.ROHAN THOMSON/AFP/Getty Images

I dare to believe in a future without offices.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a lot of companies had to adapt to their employees working from home. For many people, this began as a temporary measure, but became their new normal.

But the work model for my small business didn’t change at all. Why? Because we never had offices in the first place. My company has always been composed of a team of seasoned freelancers who work from their living-room desks, kitchen tables and patio chairs. We didn’t have to adapt – we were already set up for this, and knew it would work.

Yes, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, it can be done. Not as a coping measure, not as a backup plan, but as a fully functional everyday way of working. So, even when this global health crisis recedes, we should continue with the WFH life, and we should take this time to imagine exactly what we want our collective work lives to look like.

We need a new baseline for business

We need to envision a future without offices – or at least, without many of them. The office is a relic of the before times, and no longer needs to be the basic building block of a business.

If this idea makes you uncomfortable as an employer, ask yourself this: Why do you want people in offices? I think it often comes from a desire for control. But control over employees’ clothing, their working hours and the geographic area in which they live has no measurable positive effect on their actual work.

In fact, sometimes offices have a negative effect on employees and their work. For instance, open-concept offices are endemic despite evidence showing they’re terrible for focus and efficiency. Lots of workers can concentrate better when they don’t have to listen to Judy chatting with Sarim about a project in the next cubicle. And after a year-plus of WFH, some companies have been more productive under COVID than ever before.

Long before COVID-19 hit, 40 per cent of workers already said scheduling flexibility, including remote work, was their top criteria when choosing a job. This need has become extra strong under pandemic conditions, with CEOs and employees alike trying to juggle work alongside child care and home schooling.

But even now that some restrictions are lifting, lots of employees are choosing to quit instead of returning to the office. They hate the commute, they like wearing comfortable clothes and running a quick errand between meetings, and they want to control their own schedules. They are simply not interested in returning to the way it was before, and employers will need to adapt – or risk losing their best people.

Employers shouldn’t see this as a threat. Moving offices out of their central position offers plenty of advantages. Beyond the benefits mentioned so far, WFH can provide unprecedented access for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, caregivers, parents and all kinds of people who don’t fit a corporate mould.

This means employers will have an even broader pick of talent. This could be our opportunity to solve a ton of problems and create a whole bunch of new opportunities, all at once.

Does that mean we shouldn’t have any offices at all?

Not necessarily. Some companies can go fully remote, while others, such as manufacturers, depend on employees’ physical presence. Still others – and I think this category includes a large proportion of today’s businesses – will need to adopt a hybrid model that places the office somewhere in the equation, but no longer at the forefront.

The office can be the place employees work when their home isn’t suitable or, say, a space for large team meetings. These hybrid-model companies should start seeing WFH as the norm, and offices as the backup plan, not the other way around.

A few things business leaders should consider

If the office is no longer our anchor, and we now have to create a bespoke work environment, what will our anchors be now? Do you need a weekly check-in meeting or a monthly face-to-face? Or do you need to scale back on meetings so your employees can get their work done with fewer interruptions?

What should corporate benefits be? For instance, should companies start covering all or part of their employees’ home internet costs and office supplies? Since staff will no longer need as much physical infrastructure in office buildings, should companies start buying them laptops and desks for their homes?

How will your company ensure that employees, particularly those from underrepresented groups, don’t feel left out or isolated from the company culture when they no longer have the face time they used to have? For that matter, how do you maintain a company culture?

How will you handle recruitment, retention and promotions? Is there any practical or legal reason why employees should have to work from within a given province, or even a given country, if they’re not coming into an office?

Some things employees may want to think about right now

The work force is having a collective midlife crisis and people want a better deal in the after times. Many are on the brink of total exhaustion because of the pandemic and are pushing back against unreasonable demands on their work-life balance.

This means the people who are left may end up at even higher risk for burnout. So consider what you want next, and let your employer know. It’s to everyone’s benefit to make clear demands now. Employees may not have this amount of leverage forever, but right now, they really do.

If you’re keen to continue working from home, think about how to adapt for the long term. Consider your technology, your internet access and ergonomics in your workspace.

If you live with others, consider creating a dedicated workspace set up for your privacy as well as your employer’s confidentiality (meaning not the kitchen table). You may even want to find a new home or apartment to make this possible.

When the pandemic arrived, everyone had to adapt to less-than-ideal circumstances very quickly, but as employers envision a more permanent hybrid model or WFH situation, they may ask for certain conditions to be met.

Employers and employees both need to consider all these questions not as reasons to go back to an office-centred workplace, but as opportunities to ease the transition away from that model and into the future of work – from home.

Karima-Catherine Goundiam is CEO at Red Dot Digital Inc. and B2BeeMatch

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