Post-office: how could open-plan and virtual meetings coexist?

The computing division: 'Bonus Bureau' clerks in Washington D.C. calculating benefits for war veterans.
The computing division: ‘Bonus Bureau’ clerks in Washington D.C. calculating benefits for war veterans.

The widespread adoption of remote working will be seen as one of the most significant digitally-enabled behavioural milestones of this decade. It has limitations, but it also invites the possibility of righting some of the wrongs that have crept into the design of working environments. However, more work is needed to avoid the worst of both.

In this era, we have mainly open-plan offices and mainly closed-room online meetings. Those sharing physical spaces have good lines of sight but generally poor spaces to work and meet privately and without disturbance. For hybrid and remote workers, it’s the opposite. We might have expected these two working environments to blur. But they didn’t. And they should.

Technologies permitting near-seamless remote and hybrid working have existed for years. The various merits and drawbacks were discussed at considerable length; occasionally there’d be an impassioned rallying-cry to make work more compatible with life. Still, uptake remained extremely low, and all it took was a global pandemic to turn the corner.

Healthy workplaces are under attack, principally from the cost of commercial real-estate. Designing office space that is effective at offering a distraction-free work environment, privacy and also a sense of both inclusion and collaborative investment takes far more floor-space than taking down walls and packing desks together.

Further space can be ‘saved’ by reducing the number of desks and hoping workers will continue to be invested in the place despite not having anywhere to call their own. But out with the bathwater goes the baby.

For service-sector businesses, and also others with an interest in service efficiency such as primary healthcare, once the barriers of upskilling and driving adoption had been addressed by necessity, it was easier to see the opportunities of working remotely. But in behavioural terms, much is needed to virtualise the casual collaboration that comes with sharing a physical workplace. Everything is a meeting, and a meeting isn’t where work gets done. Meeting discipline has always been poor, and video-calls offer little improvement.

That said, applying resistance to the convention of meetings is beneficial. Time and again, remote workers have been shown to be more productive than those in the office. And in the era of reducing emissions, avoiding workers’ travel is a big step in the right direction.

But a substantial and outstanding challenge with remote working is that it is not inclusive. Many people find working from home difficult, particularly those who didn’t, or more likely couldn’t, consider remote working when taking on their home. In particular, it doesn’t suit those in junior roles, and those who live with many other people, especially if those people are trying to work remotely too.

So, with newly-found flexible and productive working, plus newly-acquired digital behaviours across workforces, what can be done? More technical and behavioural evolution is needed to improve the work environment—physical and virtual—specifically to improve informal workspaces.

Post-pandemic, hybrid working demands hybrid thinking. It’s worth treating improvements to both physical and virtual work environments as a single and ongoing endeavour, as the learnings from one may equally apply to the other.

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