Technology is reinventing the office

Herman Singh: Covid-19 killed office work, but technology has become the knight in shining armour.

We live in challenging times when many things around us are being called into question. To quote Charles Handy from his seminal book, The Empty Raincoat, “what we do, where we do it, how we do it, all can be different, and it can be better. But changes come from small initiatives that work. Initiatives that when copied become the fashion”. We are indeed amid a “great questioning” and a “great awakening” that potentially allows us to make a “great leap” to a second curve for society, business, and the economy

Take the concepts of the office and work 

The term “office” is derived from two key concepts in twelfth-century English and French namely a “post” (as in “to hold the office of…”) or in Latin “the doing of work”. It was only 300 years later that the term came to be attached to a location! Similarly, the word “work” was from its inception in the eleventh century a verb and not a noun as in the expending of physical effort for remuneration or gain. Yet in the last century, it has also come to mean a place or location where work is being done. 

In recent times, thanks to SARS-CoV-2, we are seeing the word “work” transition from being a noun back to a verb. Work is no longer a place that people go to but rather is the thing that people do. This morphed very slowly for most of us, until the lockdown. What pushed us from our comfort zone was the inability to physically be in a common space due to the pandemic. But this was just the catalyst to a change that has been many decades in the making thanks to technology.

Let us take a step back in time to the turn of the previous century. In the early 1900s, the factory was where we, mainly men, went to for physical work, and the office was a place that we, mainly women, went to for service work. The dramatic changes in the structure of the economy over the last century resulted in large scale automation of factories and so many jobs migrated to the office and the service sector became the largest part of the economy, over 80 percent of GDP in many countries. And so offices ruled as the primary bastion of productivity.

The office itself has changed over time, often evolving in a haphazard fashion rather than by design. We largely needed a common space to aggregate because we needed access to documents, hardware (like typewriters) and a process of receiving instructions and obtaining approvals. Over time we kept adding to this aggregation of tasks until by the 1980s it was estimated that 90 percent of what happened in an office was waste. 

A process of creating a lean office was initiated firstly through a process of business reengineering to remove non-value-adding tasks, movement, processes and manual effort and to both simplify and automate the core of the business. We replaced “high touch” with “high tech” in the 1990s by implementing large scale ERP and other home built bespoke systems. So now staff had to come to the physical location to access the PCs and terminals to use these great technology edifices. So fundamentally the reason for the office was still the same – access to technology, processes, documents, and the chain of command. 

The office had not changed, but the nature of work had. Nobody asked why we needed an office at all. We did design thinking IN offices but not ON offices. By the time that the 2000s had arrived, the aberration was becoming more apparent. The internet and access to personal computing devices as well as the digitisation of both documents and more processes meant that Software was eating the office. By the time that the 2010s came around, we had all moved to apps on PC and cellphones for most use cases that would have taken us to a physical location. The process of planning, directing, reviewing, creating, consuming, validating and storing information had been “appified”. This did not just affect the direct tasks, but core operations as well. We used Microsoft Office 365 and Robotic Process Automation, and digitalisation began to accelerate the automation of the middle office as well – the messy middle of the firm. 

In recent years, collaboration and co-creation are the main reason to gather people in an office. In fact, an office today should really be seen as a studio and a social club because that has turned into its primary purpose. This talks to the fact that we have fundamentally changed the nature of work. Covid-19 was the killer blow for office work, but technology has turned out to be the knight in shining armour. The reality is that online habits have been formed and there is no going back.

The pandemic catapulted us 10 years into the future

There are downsides to working from home and these include isolation and a lack of collaboration. The total number of meetings has gone up, although the number of people in meetings has gone down – when it’s not possible to solve issues in the workplace environment, there are more two-person remote meetings being set up. In addition, interruptions have gone up with people working from home, and focus has gone down.

We do not know what kind of recession we are going to have, but the current situation will be with us for a while, and we are going to see more work shifting going on. Which means you must build a virtual organisation, on platforms and cloud. We are moving from centralised to decentralised environments. The video conferencing app Zoom is now worth $50 billion or the same value as the top seven airlines combined. Why? Because we are sending the work electronically rather than the people to do the work physically. A very stark transfer of value that dramatically demonstrates the key changes underway in reshaping the future. 

There are many diehards defending the offices of course, but the reality is that we need to look at that investment as a sunk cost when we review our strategies for the future. This while Twitter announces universal WFH and Facebook has extended the new work format to the end of 2020. Japanese firms like Fujitsu are now making this permanent. Citibank has announced that they do not plan to have more than 40 percent of their staff complement in their buildings at the same time. So why not 30 percent or 20 percent?

Indeed in his next book The Second Curve: Thoughts for Reinventing Society published in 2015, Charles Handy goes on to state that “Anything that takes us out of our comfort zones for a while can act as a reminder that the past we are used to may not be our best future.” Covid-19 was the catalyst to move us from our comfort zone, not the cause! Best to remember that in a world of VUCA there is no normal, new or old.