Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Remote work has accelerated 10 years in 10 days. The only thing that could pull people back to the office is the ego of the bad middle manager scared of losing control – Chris Herd

The revolution in remote working , when it came, was peaceful. Orderly even.

There was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us.

The way things worked two weeks ago are not working today. All our previous beliefs and prejudices have been thrown out the window.

The managers who believe that you can’t trust people to work productively from home have had to adapt to a whole new world. 

The people we were told were ‘change resistant’ have just demonstrated that they can change pretty damn fast actually.

Last week Bromford Lab hosted a debate about the new world of remote work and it was noticeable that –  after the initial shock – people have adapted to different ways of working very easily. The coronavirus has moved the future forward in many respects.

The biggest challenge for people seems to be not the technology – but any combination of juggling work with childcare, staying motivated, finding a new routine and dealing with a changing workload.

A caveat: let’s not confuse enforced home working during an international lockdown with flexible working.

However the virus has just kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment in history.  And right now there are going to be lots of CEOs and Boards looking at their empty offices which cost millions each year and thinking what the future looks like.

The World We Left Behind

Before we get all nostalgic about worklife before the lockdown let’s remember the world we had created.

Even if we only manage to cut meetings down by 50%, it’s conceivable that we could add 18 months of value back into the average workers life.

18 more months we could spend not working, but rather being with your kids or spending time with friends or your community.

Before life returns to ‘normal’ let’s consider carefully what we want to return to.

The World We Move Towards 

Now is the time for some reflection about what we value and what we stand for. The actions of the large companies who first thought is to ‘furlough the non-essentials’ will be remembered for decades to come. Similarly those companies who don’t support employees who are striking a very difficult balancing act between family care and work.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values.

We will remember what companies do next.

As Nick Martin writes in a piece for The New Republic:

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

In the Bromford Lab debate there was a lot of talk of what life should be like when we return to ‘normal’. One of my favourite quotes came from my colleague Steve Nestor:

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It means getting to know teams, and actually listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones.

Letting our people become the designers of their own unique workday, and giving them the tools and permissions to create a happier and more fulfilling life for everyone could be the start of something special.




19 thoughts on “Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

  1. Hi Paul, I enjoyed this post as usual. I was reading a piece in the Guardian about the Secret Life of Plants and thought about you:

    Human societies and organisations are structured like our bodies – with a brain, or a top-level control centre, and various different organs governing specific functions. “We use this in our universities, our companies, even our class divisions,” says Mancuso. This structure enables us to move fast, physically and organisationally, but it also leaves us vulnerable. If a major organ fails, it could scupper everything, and top-down leadership rarely serves the whole.

    Plants, by contrast, “are kind of horizontal, diffusive, decentralised organisations that are much more in line with modernity”. Take the internet, the ultimate decentralised root system. “Look at the ability of Wikipedia to produce a wonderful amount of good-quality information by using a decentralised, diffused organisation. I’m claiming that, by studying plant networks, we can find wonderful solutions for us,” Or take the ethos of cooperation. Plants, say Mancuso, “are masters of starting symbiotic relationships with other organisms: bacteria, mushrooms, insects, even us. Just look at the way they use us to be transported all around the world.”


    All the best


    1. Wow that’s a great piece – thanks for sharing. “Homo sapiens have lived just 300,000 years and already we have been able to almost destroy our environment. From this point of view, how can we say that we are better organisms?”

      That example of plants being masters of starting symbiotic relationships with other organisms applied to the social sector doesn’t show we compare very well

      Lots to think of there!

  2. Spot on post Paul! It seems strange to say with everything going on, but this is a real opportunity to reset the ‘normal’ way of working. I’ve been pushing a change in our working practices for some months now. Previously it would have been months of lead in and testing, whereas we did it in the space of a week. It just shows what is possible.

    1. Thanks Brett and I agree there’s opportunity here. It looks increasingly as if the situation will not ever go back to how it was with many companies who have sent staff home already starting to question why they had to go in to the office in the first place. And your wider point is correct – how many other things do we spend months or years planning when they could actually be achieved in weeks…

  3. Great article Paul – just published to my network on LinkedIn thanks for putting it out there…

  4. Good article Paul, for us all to think about.
    In my work I find end to end services that are fragmented to focus on one purpose. There are staff who are fearful of their managers. The barriers between departments is significant, so that one department works against the other. Staff are only seen as ‘resources’ and are treated according to the role they perform in the sausage machine.

    I help them to develop a teamwork way of thinking and working. They engage with each other in deeper ways than they ever have. They bring their whole selves to work, and that whole self is absorbed in the culture of the team. The teams are cross-functional and focus on common purpose. Staff are treated like humans by being listened to, and their positions taken seriously. Decisions are delegated downwards. The mangers learn new competencies and ways of behaving.

    All of this is achieved together, and be engaging with each other in the same space. We shun emails and reports, and enable talking and sharing.

    For me this is the future, and working from home may assist when all of the above is in place. But I fear that simply more working from home strengthened the Command & Control mindset and behaviours of an organisation. What do you think?

    1. I’m trying to be optimistic but I fear you could be right. Few organizations have mastered the cross silo way of working you describe, hence the possibility of fiefdoms becoming more entrenched. There’s some initial evidence of more internal meetings happening since lockdown – and we all know more communication doesn’t mean better communication. Thanks John- let’s watch out for it

  5. Great post Paul. Some telling quotes from the Bromford Lab. I believe what the current crisis has demonstrated is the need to be positive, embrace the challenges and opportunities that the changing world around us presents every day. It has also shown when we need we can be agile and manage what we thought we couldn’t. So we must not go back when the crisis abates without re-evaluating “normal”. Instead as you suggest, engaging to create the next normal is the key to unlocking the future. For me its about creating an agile culture to prepare us and the planet for the many ongoing and new challenges ahead.

    1. Thanks. Really we are in the midst of the biggest social experiement that’s ever been run. There’s a lot going on that we need to analyse before we are able to see the effect of having to work from home at scale on productivity. We’re also going to learn something about what happens to people’s creativity and social connection when they can’t interact face-to-face with their colleagues. Lots to learn from before we go back to old ways!

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