Escaping the Cubicle Farm – COVID-19 series

Nothing happens in decades, and then decades happen in days. We often get stuck in yesterday’s habits when a better option already exists. Especially when it comes to technology. It’s only when a transformational moment occurs do we embrace the shift. That moment has arrived for the modern day corporate office. We have finally escaped the cubicle farm – with a little courage we can make it permanent and change the shape of offices forever.

Why offices exist: It’s worth remembering that centralised offices exist, because once upon a time that was where the ‘tools to do our jobs’ resided. Typewriters, expensive photocopiers, computers, printers, internet connections, and even phones where all once things we didn’t have in our homes. Only a company could make the requisite investment. These days we nearly always have better technology in our homes than our office!

Weirdly, when that changed, we still kept going into our offices – mostly through habit and managements’ desire to watch over us.

All of a sudden – this changed. 

History of office hours: The amount of hours people worked was never tracked before industrialisation. We worked until it was done. We got paid when we sold what we made. It turns out that office hours where set to when the sun shone in the window of the office. Administration work was linked to daylight hours long before they became formal office hours in the mid 1900’s. So, now that we have electricity, a serious question needs to be why are we still slaves to 9-5? Especially given most of us are expected to check emails in bed, and answer the phone long after dinner. Surely people who do work which isn’t a time scheduled interaction ,can choose when to get the work done, just like a grown up should.

All of a sudden – we choose the hours. 

What causes traffic jams: They aren’t caused by the roads not being big enough – they are caused by everyone starting and finishing work around the same time – funny that. The major traffic jams around the world aren’t on the way to factories or retail outlets, but to CBD’s with high rise buildings filled with people doing information work. Crazy fact, the average office worker in Australia spends the equivalent of an entire work day commuting every week. We don’t need wider roads, we need the wisdom to realise we can work our own hours, and choose where we do that work for much of the week. Offices need to be a place where people collaborate, connect, plan and inspire – not type on laptops and make phone calls. Once we focus on that, we’ll realise the office is a sometimes place, not an everyday place.

All of a sudden – the roads are clear.

Truth about open plan offices: Offices are expensive to own run and operate. They are costly to the firm and the people who need to travel to them. The economic response to costly offices was the rapid growth of the open plan layout – sold in, as a shift towards collaborative work – the reality was more about getting more chickens in a smaller coup. We always knew we could collaborate miles away from each other and without being squashed into cubicles.

All of a sudden – we are distributed.

Offices of the future: These won’t just be smaller given we’ll frequent them less often, their shape will change too. They’ll be more open – be more like a house – hotel lobby – lounge room – cafe – the kinda space you want to spend time in and be inspired by. They won’t be a place where you do work, but plan and review it. We don’t even know what they will look like yet, we are about to invent them. They will be modular and change their shape based on the day, week, month, season and which firms and people happen to be using them. They’ll be what co-working spaces should’ve been – not the cubicle farms disguised with kombucha and pinball they turned out to be.

All of a sudden – we have an opportunity to reinvent work spaces.

A post COVID economy will be one where information work is as mobile as the tools we use to conduct it. The benefits for society will be enormous. We’ll have less commute time, spend more time and money in our local communities, and we’ll enjoy the interspersed office time we do have much more. We can have our cake and eat it too. But only if we don’t slip back into old habits.

The biggest benefit of all? That will be that we can unlock ourselves from office proximity. We can live where we choose even if we work at a city based firm. We can go regional and drive ,or even fly in when required and still have money and time left over. And most important of all, it could take pressure off house prices in and around major cities. A simple shift like this might just give the next generation a chance at owning a home – wherever they choose that to be.

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Keep Thinking,