Working-from-home is the start of the distributed hybrid workplace model the planet needs right now.

The genie is out of the bottle. Every manager knows that working from home (WFH) is possible – now we need to make sure that it’s productive for the medium term. The good news is that many organisations have already developed hybrids of work and home as part of a flexible workplace program. The lessons learned from these leaders will help everyone orchestrate the “next normal”. Distributed workplaces don’t assume that everyone is in the office all the time, so teams find their own ways to stay connected and be productive through the week. And people in those teams relish the time at home. We’re now on a fast-track to much wider adoption of this approach, and it will have significant impact on the amount of space we need in the office, and the kinds of work settings we’ll look for closer to home. We shouldn’t aim to snap back. We need a more sustainable way of working.

I’m one of these people who has been saying for decades that you don’t need to go to work to work. Clearly its taken a while for wireless technology and personal devices to catch up with the concept. For most of this era the movement was all inside the office, encouraging people to use all the different settings in a workplace that were better suited to the task at hand. For me, the shift accelerated when I joined DEGW’s Sydney office in 2008 and since then I haven’t had a desk of my own. I’ve always just spread out and then packed up on a daily basis, using whatever space was available, sitting next to whoever I needed to work with. Just like the nifty video of the disappearing office – everything I needed ended up on my phone or laptop, and all the information I worked on sat in the cloud.

Now in my fifth year as a independent advisor, my work gets done all over Sydney. Before the lock down my options would range across home, a fabulous coworking hub with a sunny terrace, client sites, libraries and the more relaxed coffee shops. Since the end of March that world has narrowed to home, with the occasional dash into AECOM’s empty George Street offices. Home is not ideal when it’s the only option for a family of 4 knowledge workers, all juggling calls and meetings.

Working from home used to mean something else entirely. It used to be a respite from the office and everything involved in getting there. When I have it all to myself – its heaven – stuff gets done. Back in my DEGW/AECOM Strategy+ days, when we were helping corporate clients make the shift to more flexible workplaces, we would often test the appetite for more distributed working by asking this question before we made the transition to flexible work inside the office:

Ideally, and thinking about the work you do, how many days/week would you like to work from home?”

Only 10% said never. Even fewer said all the time. Around 40-50% wanted 1-2 days/week, and 30-40% a couple of days/month. The idea of having more autonomy, more control over your schedule, and spending some of your time away from the office had broad appeal across many different sectors.

As part of one post-occupancy review we ran another survey after the flex work program was implemented. These people now shared a range of different work settings in an office, with each team agreeing their own rituals and ways of staying connected across the week and in different locations. Even with new focus spaces and rooms for google hangouts, the new space was buzzier and more interactive. No organisation can really afford to give everyone private, quiet space on tap whenever its needed – and no organisation would want to either – it would be worse than the cure. How were they travelling? Here is a sample of their feedback:

I find that often time out of the office is more productive as there are less distractions.“
“Job satisfaction is vastly improved. Travel times are extreme and at least this way I have some of my life back under control.“
“I can complete focused work in less amount of time and with better quality.“
“Less interruptions at home, therefore I am more productive. I save the work where I have to really concentrate to this day, which helps me plan the rest of my week.“

The feedback from the CFO was also telling – not captured in a survey but shared by the proud project director after the final exec review: “You don’t often see big savings and happy people.” Organisations that have recognised the value of informal work from home have been able to realise better productivity with less space. They’ve already taken the lease savings, or have increased their capacity in the same footprint. The combination of new behaviour and an extended downturn is about to see a major reckoning in the rest of the commercial market – especially in the big end of town.

The people in the ULI webinar on May 7 answered the same “ideally, how many days from home” question in a quick online poll. 76% of attendees voted for 1-2 days/week (up by around 50% from our earlier data set) and no one wanted to go back to the office for good. New habits are being formed. Once we emerge from the staged return to work, many people will be looking to save time and money on a commute, and they’ll be exploring their options closer to home.

One important community response will be the third spaces that provide free community coworking options. Libraries are already straining to cope with the demand for WIFI and workspace. At the wonderful Green Square Library you’ll be lucky to find an empty seat on a Wednesday. Local governments should be looking at new ways to solve this challenge with spaces that are more accessible, more accepting of noisy collaboration and open for longer through the week. The university campus model of an academic library paired with a more informal, always accessible learning commons is a good precedent.

So when we can get everyone back to the office, we should challenge the assumptions around how it works. As Greta Thunberg has observed, ‘Change is coming, whether you like it or not.’ Which takes me right back to one of my first webinar slides – most desks are empty for most of the day. These empty desks will help us keep our distance through the rest of this pandemic. But what then? It’s an extraordinary waste of resource-guzzling real estate to keep giving people a desk or an office that they use for personal storage while they are working from home.

The waste is unsustainable. This is why we cant snap back to the pre-COVID era. We have to embed this new distributed work model. We have nine and a half years left to reduce emissions by 50% if we’re going to keep the planet livable.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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