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The Folly of Expectation in the Future of Work

A critical task for hiring managers is to properly set expectations. That means salaries, of course, but it also means leadership style, actual work to be performed, and team size. And it also means properly informing candidates of what their workspace will be like. It’s safe to say that there’s still a clear conceptualization of what an office should look like: private offices flanking a “prairie” of cubicles. But as offices continue to diversify, all bets may soon be off for what offices look like.

That’s the argument of a recent study by Clutch, a B2B reviews site. Through interviews with nine employees at a range of businesses around the country as well as an in-depth survey, Clutch identified a number of different highlights that they view as typifying different office modalities. These range from a traditional office design to a co-working space to a home office shared by several employees, and also includes “variants” like a traditional office with a great view. 

While the perspectives in the individual interviews have to be taken with a grain of salt, they raise an important point: there may not be a “typical” office in the business world of the future, which means that the expectations held by workers, job seekers, and office managers are probably going straight out the window. For all the efforts of traditional landlords, and for all the disruption that co-working and remote work can bring to the table, the reality of the situation will probably be somewhere in between. 

Let’s break that down. Take traditional offices, the kind everyone thinks of when they hear the word “office.” This is clearly a model that won’t fit everywhere in the future, particularly as tech-enabled work solutions continue to expand in scope. Offices are expensive, cubicles are mundane, and open offices are disliked. For lots of businesses, particularly those with a distributed workforce around the world or the need for a lot of collaborative, multi-disciplinary work like visual design, the idea of the bullpen or cubicle corral just isn’t ideal. On the other hand, some businesses have stuck with the traditional office setup. Law firms, for instance, businesses where privacy is critical, can make great use of these spaces. At least, when employees choose (or are forced to) work from the office. 

Then you have co-working. All conversations about WeWork aside, co-working can represent a fantastic solution for remote-centric companies, tech businesses, organizations with a lot of freelancers…the list goes on and on. At the same time, co-working also presents some challenges that limit its utility for a lot of businesses. Privacy can be non-existent. Office permanence is inherently uncertain, so businesses that have a physical component (manufacturing, product design, etc) need not apply. 

Rounding out the pack are open offices and remote-focused companies. Open offices do cut down on costs and they can look sleek and modern for visitors and clients, but the downsides have been discussed ad nauseum. Remote working is the most disruptive force here, and it certainly represents a divergence from the normal. If open offices are meant to keep overhead down, how about skipping the office entirely? If co-working is supposed to be flexible and easily accessible, remote working nails it there too. No matter the co-working space, employees still have to put their pants on to get in…not so for remote work. Of course, remote working has its downsides, too. Team unity can take a hit, and managing dispersed teams can be tough on managers. On the worker side, not everyone has the discipline to be able to manage the freedom-granting nature of the work-from-home arrangement. According to Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey, 43 percent of respondents described the best offices as promoting team-building and collaboration. That’s not on the table when you’re working from home. 

What does this mean for office managers, designers, and occupants? Above all, it means that everyone should temper their expectations in regards to workplaces. Graduates about to enter the workforce will need to expect the unexpected in the course of their job search. In most fields, any given job could potentially be performed in a traditional office, remotely, or in a co-working space. Workers will need to be able to adapt to the needs of their workspace, whatever that may be. This in turn means that training requirements will shift over time, as curricula and soft skills support begin to reflect the diversity of work experiences on the table. 

Additionally, flexibility of spaces will become increasingly important. A building leased to a law firm will have one set of needs, but if that law firm leaves, expectations as to what the subsequent office user might want will be increasingly off the table. Will the new occupant want to knock out a floor for an open layout? Install as many offices as possible? Build a manufacturing-oriented co-working space with fabrication tools? They’re all valid options. 

In sum, the only thing that we should expect in the offices of the future is that we will need to expect everything. The current office milieu can easily lead observers to conclude that the future could go one way or another, but the reality is that it’ll be a little of column A, a little of column B, and a little of column C.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research