A year into the pandemic, office buildings remain one of the last parts of pre-Covid-19 life to reopen. As of April 7, an average of only 24% of office workers in major cities like San Francisco, Dallas and New York had returned to the office, according to data from the building-security company Kastle Systems. But with the pace of vaccinations accelerating, by summer it’s reasonable to expect that virtually every person who worked in an office before the pandemic will be able to get a vaccine if they want one. Which means that from a health perspective, there should be little obstacle to office life returning to what it was before the wrong bat met the wrong person and touched off Covid-19.
So things will go back to The Office kind of normal? Not quite. One year in, the experiences of the pandemic have fundamentally changed our expectations of what office work is and how it can be done. Thanks in part to new technologies like easy videoconferencing and message apps like Slack, we now know it is entirely possible for most white-collar knowledge work to be done remotely with little loss of productivity–and possibly even a gain by some measurements. When grocery-store workers and meatpacking employees couldn’t make it to their workplaces, those corners of the economy teetered on collapse. But when most of the nation’s office workers were sent home in mid-March 2020, for the most part they just kept working from spare bedrooms and kitchens and whatever corner of space they could carve out for their laptops.
The second thing we learned is that the virus itself isn’t the only thing keeping office workers out of the office. Surveys from researchers at Stanford University who looked at both what workers want–and what bosses have so far promised–indicate that hybrid work will be the dominant form going forward: a mix of remote work and in-person office work two or three days a week. In fact, many workers are unlikely to return to the office at all. A report from Emergent Research estimates that 15% to 18% of workers will be full-time remote even after the pandemic, up from single digits before Covid-19.
The pandemic is far from over, so it’s possible some of these attitudes will shift in the months ahead. Working parents may feel differently about the lures of remote work once their kids are able to go back into full-time, in-person schooling, while employees who took the opportunity to move to cheaper, bigger housing far from their original office likely won’t be able to come back to even a hybrid in-person setup. But there will be no going back to the pre-pandemic normal. A survey from the office-management software company Envoy found that nearly half of workers say they would leave their job if they weren’t offered at least a hybrid work option, while another survey found that workers would take an 8% pay cut for a hybrid option.
Rethinking the Value of Business Districts
Yet as much as employees may desire hybrid work, on a national scale it will present profound challenges for both workers and managers, as well as the cities that have long hosted them. Currently 16.4% of office space in Midtown and lower Manhattan, the country’s two largest central business districts, is up for lease, a larger amount of vacant space than after 9/11 or the 2008 recession. While some of that space will assuredly be filled as the pandemic ends, a hybrid future, let alone a remote-first one, will likely require less space for businesses. This will have enormous knock-on effects for the restaurants, cafes, public transit and other services that cater to commuters. It’s far from clear what will fill the vacant storefronts in Manhattan or Los Angeles if the flow of commuting office workers drops by even 10% over the long term.
Making a Reservation for Your Work Station
For both workers and companies, hybrid work may seem like the perfect solution, but it will require a fundamental rethinking of what an office is actually for. In the future, office spaces may be less for doing all work than for doing specific work, and it will fall to managers to make those lines clear. That will mean specific days or even weeks when workers are expected in the office, and guidelines about what they’ll do when they’re there. Instead of the single gleaming central corporate headquarters, companies may benefit from smaller but more numerous satellite offices–or even co-working spaces, which could herald the rebound of firms like WeWork.
Office time will be set aside for specific collaboration projects that require in-person face time, with different teams getting different time slots. That all-important question–“could this meeting have been an email?”–will become even more vital in the hybrid age. But with space likely to be at a premium in the slimmed-down office of the future, managers will need to know exactly when workers will be in the office, which means going to your work station could be akin to signing up for a popular exercise class.
Avoiding burnout may be the biggest challenge–although for many workers, it might be too late. According to a report from Microsoft, time spent in meetings is more than double what it was last year. Workers now spend an additional hour connected to Slack than they did before the pandemic, and Microsoft’s survey found that nearly 40% of workers are reporting that they feel exhausted from all that screen time, though we can hope at least some of those negative feelings will be curbed when the pandemic is finally in our rear-view mirror.
Measuring Our Work
Some help may come from the adoption of workflow-automation tools, which accelerated during the pandemic. The pace of adoption will only grow, and at their best, these tools can lighten the load of office workers by automating the mindless tasks that make up much of our workday. But they also represent a very real threat to workers who will lose their jobs in the name of automation efficiency, a trend that will likely be strengthened in a remote or hybrid-first future, when productivity will be judged by metrics rather than presence. It’s a lot easier to treat your workers as bits of output when “they’re just squares on a Zoom screen,” rather than flesh-and-blood humans in a cubicle, as Kevin Roose, the New York Times writer and author of the new book Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, told me recently.
Both remote and hybrid futures also present a threat to something that is difficult to measure: company culture. “It’s hard to inculcate culture and character and all those things,” Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said recently. “It’s very hard to build and develop a deeper relationship on Zoom.” The big losers may be younger or new workers who haven’t had the opportunity to build up the kind of social capital that helps sustain a remote career. Data from Time is Ltd. found that the number of connections that new hires make at work is down 17% from before the pandemic. And it’s notable that employees over the age of 40, who have deeper professional networks and are more likely to have a remote-friendly setup at home, are more likely to say they would prefer to continue working remotely, compared with workers under 40. Affirming the mood gap, data from Microsoft indicates that business leaders say they are thriving in the pandemic even as members of Gen Z say they are “merely surviving or flat-out struggling.”
Setting a New Set of Office Rules
At the same time, managers will need to be on guard against the tyranny of physical proximity. A hybrid future where top corporate executives are able to continue working in-person, while most lower-level employees work remotely or in a hybrid fashion, is one set up to unfairly favor those workers who can make it to the office. That means setting parameters not just about how often an employee can work from home, but also how often they can work in the office, to ensure that corporate advancement doesn’t once again depend on who can put in the most face time.
As we look to the future of work, it’s important to keep in mind that everything workers went through over the past year was colored by the experience of what is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. The trauma of sick and dying family members, the productivity nightmare that was remote learning for many working parents, even the inability to tote your laptop to a local café –all of this should be behind us, sooner or later. But that means that for all we learned during the year of the plague, workers and managers are about to embark on an experience that in its own way will be just as unprecedented as the pandemic itself. And unlike Covid-19, we have no way of knowing when or how it will settle into the new kind of day at the office.
Bryan Walsh is the Future Correspondent for Axios, covering emerging tech and future trends, as well as the author of End Times, a 2019 book about existential risk (including pandemics). He previously worked as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor for TIME for more than 15 years.