A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jan 18, 2021

Has the Death of the Office Desk Finally Arrived?

The pandemic has accelerated yet another workplace trend: that of reducing the personal space allocated to employees. 

The individual workspace - even those derided as cubicle farms or the cacophonic open space systems that have driven employees to invest in noise cancelling headphones - may yet be viewed with nostalgia by those now required to hot desk rather than have a space to call their own. JL 

Chip Cutter reports in the Wall Street Journal:

White-collar workers have been losing space for decades. Private offices gave way to cubicles, which morphed into open-office designs. In recent years, companies with large populations of traveling employees have moved to hoteling or “hot desk” models. As the coronavirus upends work, employers say corporate spaces should exist for team-based projects. Companies are now drawing up plans to rip out individual desks. (But) a workspace can provide a sense of identity. A number of companies predict a blended approach. “Remote work may not be the best thing for everyone,”

Your office will likely survive the pandemic. Your desk may not.

As the coronavirus upends work, a number of employers say corporate spaces should exist largely, or in some cases entirely, for team-based projects. Companies in industries as varied as technology and financial services are now drawing up plans to rip out individual desks and renovate offices to include floors of meeting rooms and lounges, with workers directed to do their own work at home.

The change is an acknowledgment that, even once safety measures subside, the pandemic is likely to spur a broader restructuring of offices and the ways in which people do their jobs.

“We’ve gone through a one-way door,” says Drew Houston, founder and chief executive of the technology company Dropbox, which has spent months rethinking its offices and workplace practices. “This is a permanent shift.”

Dropbox is among a small but growing cadre of employers embracing the deskless post-pandemic trend. The company told staffers last year that, once its facilities reopen, it will declare offices near San Francisco and elsewhere essentially off limits to individual work, transforming them into what it calls “Dropbox Studios” for meetings and collaboration among teams.

Some employees may come to an office once a week for a day of meetings; others may visit once a quarter. Day-to-day work at a Dropbox office will no longer be possible for most staffers, many of whom will have greater flexibility to live where they would like. Those who insist on a desk outside of home can use a company stipend for membership at a co-working space like WeWork, says Melanie Collins, Dropbox’s chief people officer. The company could reduce its real-estate footprint, saving costs, but also plans to increase its travel budget to fly workers to its offices. “One of our goals is to really retain the magic of what it feels like to come together,” she says.

While Dropbox reimagines the way it operates, it’s also shrinking its workforce. The company announced Wednesday it would lay off 315 people, or about 11% of its workforce.

Plenty of companies are still assessing the future of offices. Multiple surveys have shown that employees value the flexibility and focus that comes with working at home, though many executives also feel in-person conversations are necessary for setting goals, hammering out problems or discussing new ideas and products, one reason a number of employers are reluctant to give up offices altogether.

Adopting a hybrid approach, in which employees can work from their office desks or stay home as they please also has limitations. Dropbox’s Mr. Houston says his team studied that possibility and felt it created a recipe for unpredictability and offices that would, most likely, often resemble “ghost towns,” one reason the company is emphasizing that spaces should only be used for planned group meetings.


“We asked ourselves if we had the opportunity to start with a clean slate, how would we redesign our work life? How would we give employees the flexibility that remote work offers, but with the benefit of human connection and community that we know we’ve all been missing?” Ms. Collins says.

Losing a desk, though, can still take some adjustment. While rarely spacious, desks often serve multiple utilitarian functions: a dedicated place to work; a go-to spot for sad, if efficient, lunches in front of a computer; and an all-round dumping ground for everything from photos and trinkets to spare blazers and work files. Sitting next to someone day after day can deepen relationships and workplace bonds, and help colleagues who frequently work together.

A workspace can also provide a small sense of identity, says Tara Wolckenhauer, a human-resources executive at payroll processor ADP, which isn’t ditching its desks. After months of working remotely, Ms. Wolckenhauer returned to her small private office at ADP’s New Jersey headquarters last year and found herself unexpectedly moved. “When I opened my door to my office, I wanted to cry,” Ms. Wolckenhauer says. “The reality is I am different at work than I am at home, and my office space really describes that.”

Even so, white-collar workers have been losing space for decades. Private offices that once lined floors ultimately gave way to cubicles, popularized in the 1960s, which later morphed into open-office designs and rows of workers spread across a floor. In recent years, a number of consulting companies and others with large populations of traveling employees have moved to hoteling or “hot desk” models, in which workers store goods in company lockers and reserve an open, unassigned desk, when needed.

The pandemic only accelerates such trends, with a number of companies now experimenting with new ways to set up offices. In the pre-Covid era, cloud-software provider VMware dedicated about 70% of square footage in its buildings to desks and individual work areas, with 30% of its space consisting of meeting and gathering places, says Chief Executive Patrick Gelsinger. That will flip in the future; the company will renovate spaces so that 50% to 70% of an office will be dedicated to shared spaces in what it calls its “collaboration centric design.” About 20% of employees will continue to be office dwellers, as before, but many more will work remotely or come into offices far less frequently in a hybrid model.

Mr. Gelsinger, who on Wednesday was tapped to lead Intel Corp., says he foresees offices serving roles as hubs, a place for managers to convene teams and hold events, such as innovation sprints, celebrations or culture-building activities. The company also eyes some cost savings. VMware will be able to shrink its real-estate footprint, consolidating three offices in cities like Boston, for instance, into one, and closing some smaller facilities, Mr. Gelsinger says.

A deskless future will bring challenges. In addition to the cost and hassle of setting up home offices, employees will need to decide when it makes the most sense to get face time with colleagues or superiors. Some industries, like those focused on developing new physical products, have already found it all but impossible to work remotely. Beyond that, employers embracing a remote work culture say companies and managers will need to learn to be more flexible with employees, realizing that work and life interruptions will remain, as they have throughout the pandemic. “I think there’ll be a need for a new social contract, whether implicit or explicit at work, where employers are going to have to let go of the factory mind-set of, all right, if you’re in your seat for eight hours, creating widgets, you’re a valued employee,” Dropbox’s Mr. Houston says.

A number of companies predict a blended approach. At Signifyd, a fast-growing financial technology firm based near San Francisco, the company will likely continue to maintain desks in offices for employees who need a dedicated workspace outside the home, but will also allow greater flexibility for those working remotely. The company worries that if it restricts use of its offices, some workers will suffer. “Remote work may not be the best thing for everyone,” says Emily Mikailli, the company’s senior vice president of people operations. Even so, “the idea is not that they’re going to be coming in five days a week every week in the future; it’s going to be more of a rotating basis.”

Some companies are even urging staff to reconsider how they describe working spaces. Vidyard, a Canada-based video platform for businesses, no longer calls its buildings near Vancouver and Kitchener, Ontario, offices; they are “collaboration centers,” and now advertised as such on the company’s jobs page, says Chief Executive Michael Litt. Staffers mostly do their work at home; its physical spaces have been reconfigured for groups to sit in “pods” and have conversations. While the company still has some individual desks in its office, it doesn’t expect many employees to use them. “Your office is your home location where you work,” Mr. Litt says.
After staffers are vaccinated against Covid-19, he envisions a scenario where workers will come into its offices for longer discussions or meetings where it would be fatiguing to sit on a video call. He also expects the company will be able to shrink some of its real estate and get together for social gatherings at a bar or restaurant. “The way we work will never go back,” he says.

0 comments:

Post a Comment