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CommonTime Enterprise Mobility Blog

Virtual Offices: Will the Physical Workspace Exist in 10 Years?

For a number of years, remote working has been touted as the future of employment. Futurists imagined a world where technology enables staff to increase productivity from the comfort of their own homes.

It’s certainly an appealing idea. Staff are able to work comfortably, without distractions and without the need to be located in the same geographic location as their desired employer. Companies, meanwhile, are able to maintain - and sometimes increase - staff productivity, as well as reducing overhead real estate costs.

The benefits are clear. So, why are companies that offer remote working policies still considered innovative? Why is the practice not more common?

The Challenges of Remote Working

Companies have long since struggled with the concept of monitoring remote employee activity. Additionally, there are only certain jobs which facilitate remote working. Many require equipment or types of collaboration which can only be achieved on-site.

However, discussion seems to be turning from questions of management to practicality. Poor internet connectivity is one of the most prominent issues that remote workers currently face, with 58% suffering from slow internet speeds. Of these, 46% say they will no longer be able to work from home unless something changes.

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"48% of remote workers do not believe they will  be able to continue unless connectivity improves."

This finding highlights an important issue with the remote working paradigm. Individual, and by extension company, productivity is impacted by personal employee situations. Though it could be said that this was always the case, the effect is intensified by a home environment. No longer can organisations effectively  control the resources that employees have access to. Instead, the quality of internet connectivity and office space are determined by employees themselves.

IBM, Apple & The Office of the Future

IBM, once seen as a pioneer of work from home culture has recently announced the closure of its liberal remote working policy. The shock decision is leaving thousands of remote workers with a stark choice - either relocate to a regional office, or leave the company. It’s a tough decision, especially considering personal circumstances will make it extremely difficult for many employees to relocate.

Widespread speculation has led some commentators to suggest that this move may in fact be a stealth downsizing activity driven by market pressures rather than a statement on the effectiveness of remote working itself. The official explanation provided by IBM states that the company wishes to facilitate  collaboration - a concern for many looking adopt remote working policies.

Meanwhile, one of the other largest tech firms in the world - Apple - is set to open its new multi-billion dollar headquarters in Cupertino, California. Similarly, this is viewed by many as a prime example of the way in which employees will work over the next 10 years. However, the timing of this move comes just as non-farm employment in the San-Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area is starting to plateau.

Conor Sen of Bloomberg attributes this to an ageing Millennial workforce. As Millennials begin to start families and move into the suburbs, there will be an acute labour shortage in densely populated campuses - working against Apple’s attempt to lure talent to the area. Sen concludes that, ultimately, it will be the now defunct remote working policies of IBM that Apple will have to adopt in order to remain competitive in the labour market over the next 10 years.

An Emerging Hybrid: Semi-Remote Working

It is clear that while there are advantages to remote working, a number of high profile companies are still struggling to implement effective remote working procedures. Whether it’s a matter of practicality, management or economic circumstance - there is no denying that challenges are present. So, what can be done?

One potential solution involves reimagining the nature of a workplace - taking aspects of home working, and aspects of office culture. The beginnings of such an environment can be witnessed in the rise of coworking spaces. These collaborative spaces are predominantly aimed at entrepreneurs and startups seeking an out-of-home environment in which to work, without the need to invest in office real estate.

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"The future office will most likely be a collaborative hub, rather than a collection of cubicles."

However, the microtrends that take hold of startup culture do not long go unnoticed. If previous examples of this cycle hold true, then soon larger organisations will begin launching their own coworking spaces. How exactly this would work has yet to be determined - but there are some early indications. For example:

  • Technology firms are prioritising creativity and comfort for employees
  • Coworking spaces and creative breakout rooms are appearing in corporate offices
  • Increasingly, companies are introducing hot desk policies to encourage collaboration

Therefore, it is likely that the immediate future of work is not an instant and radical shift to remote locations, but a hybrid where offices become spaces for collaboration. In such a model, staff would still be able to work remotely - but would also be able to utilise shared office space to overcome practical challenges where necessary, or to meet & collaborate in.

Managing a Semi-Remote Workforce

In many ways, a semi-remote workforce presents more challenges than an entirely remote one. Companies must learn to encourage employees to make the best use of space, without dictating exactly how each space must be used. Furthermore, tracking day-to-day performance will become increasingly difficult - although can be mitigated by monitoring the use of remote desktop environments.

Additionally, office interiors must be carefully designed to offer a balance of creative and reflective spaces. Some areas will need to foster collaboration, while others would need to provide a quiet area for concentration. Because the use of space changes, so too must working policies. To take advantage of a semi-remote workforce, companies need to introduce hot desk procedures, as well as remote working policies.

However, the benefits of successfully utilising a semi-remote workforce include increased positivity and, by extension, lower staff turnover. Though a fully realised strategy may be years away, forward thinking companies must start looking today at working practices and how to effectively utilise both the physical space and staff that they have.

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Posted by Chris Martin

Chris is a digital marketer who strongly believes in the power of creating memorable customer experiences. He proactively drives digital strategy and content production at CommonTime.