Two Steps into the Future

Over two years ago, while preparing commentaries about the future of work for Colliers International, I hazarded a guess that one of the most likely scenarios is the merge of space where people play their professional roles with the one where they play their private roles. This broad take on the expected directions in which the evolution of the work space would develop deserves some elaboration and clarification today, two years and one pandemic later, as a side note to the report New Normal in the Workplace.

The merge of buildings has already begun and is under way, as testified by variants of work models presented in the report, beginning with the traditional model characteristic for the 20th century industrial societies, called the stationary model, ending with the fully remote model, in which the company residence is only a legal term, devoid of any tangible consequences such as desks, but also... changing rooms for cyclists, fruit Thursdays, or other artefacts of the modern times which appeared in our offices in the first decades of the 21st century. The devil is in the detail, as always. That is why the most inspiring models, because of their transformational potential, are intermediary models, namely the agora or the satellite model. We can expect that, in terms of office life strategies in the nearest future, the most interesting will be innovations in these exact intermediary models.

Starting with spring 2021, when the offices populated again, an experiment began in Poland and in other developed countries as well. An experiment, which may last several years and lead to a new standard of organizing team intellectual work. Having observed the gradual specialization and fragmentation of companies organizational culture, which concurs with the wave of individualism built upon countless hues and variants of identity that is developing in the Western culture, one could predict that what awaits us at the end of this road is not one dominating “office system”, but many differing systems.

One could even venture a more far-reaching hypothesis. Metaphorically speaking, with the progressing customisation of large companies to the increasingly better understood and more intimately researched needs of their employees, the corporate identity will become more of an effect of discreet sociological negotiations, until it becomes – ostensibly at least – a new, natural and perfectly tailored identity that employees will perceive as their own and not imposed upon them. To use another metaphor – corporate identity may increasingly resemble a mirror in which employees look at themselves seeking acceptance, support, and empathy, and less and less resemble a projector imposing on employees specific frames and scenery in which they play their professional roles. Each culture has a set of norms related to space and corporate culture is no exception here.

Let’s assume then that norms related to physical spaces will, in the long run, become part of company culture, and as a consequence that there will be an office in this culture. This assumption is far from unshakeable. In the long run, counting in decades, it might be shaken by two already visible trends. First, office understood as a separated space for intellectual team work and meetings with clients will lose its importance should neurointerfaces, that is electronic interfaces directly linking the brain with the computer – not through and organ of sight, hearing, speech, or touch – become popularized, leading to the merge of experiencing the virtual and the physical world. To put it shortly, all sensations and experiences related to the office will be felt only in simulation attended by employees and possible company guests. Second, the office could disappear, or greatly diminish, in relation to the visible work polarization trend, as a result of which – and that would happen to a much greater degree – middle-level functions, both specialist and manager, are pushed out: either by outsourcing of all large blocks of corporate functions, or by process robotization and automation, or finally as a consequence of robotization and automation of these first-line corporate functions that have been filled by middle-level workers.

Such visions are, however, so remote, that they have no influence on decisions made today when it comes to designing office spaces and the experiences of their users. On the other hand, there exist hypotheses worth bringing up and not worth fighting against, which are related to the medium perspective. These are hypotheses concerning trends that will appear after the “great office experiment of the 21st century”, in which we currently find ourselves, often unaware, either as researchers or subjects. Let’s consider three of those.

The first one, let us call it the “cyberpunk” one, is the hypothesis of corporate merge of work and living spaces. In this world, ties linking corporations with their employees are tightened, and a certain lifestyle, also related with living in accommodations provided by the employer, becomes part of the contract of employment. In an ideal variant, the accommodations are located close enough to the workplace to remove commute from the equation. This may sound a bit amusing, but please realize that this future would be quite easy to implement – given the current demand for apartments and the interpretation of the Polish Social Insurance Institution according to which a company-owned flat made available based on regulations or a collective agreement as an additional element of the salary is not subject to contributions deducted from payments... So we might see new company towns, perhaps even sooner than later. We need only build!

Another hypothesis, let’s call it “the nest hypothesis” is a vision of future in which the merge of office and personal spaces occurs in a cooperative model. In this world, growing groups of specialist, not tied by contract to one employer, form their own family and professional communes, organized like cooperatives, for instance, with the purpose to provide living space, place to work, spend free time, and perhaps a place for a community life. To understand this variant it is crucial to appreciate communal needs, environmental effectiveness, and high quality of life. Members of these cooperatives could share and optimize media costs, including high speed internet access, cleaning and other services, all in one small commune of, say, four to seven families. People who would take part in such a project, let’s say they would be IT specialists with families, will gladly invite their employers to participate in maintenance costs, but will be reluctant to forgo benefits acquired by the cooperative and to agree to the unpleasant necessity of commuting to work.

The third hypothesis, let’s call it the “retrofitting” one, is a vision in which the merge of office and life spaces occurs under relentless pressure of environmental regulations. Although first attempts to change the function of commercial real estates can already be seen in Polish cities, like e.g. changing an old office building or factory into an apartment block or a mixed-use building, so far these attempts have been motivated by search for profitable innovations in view of growing prices of attractively located green field investment plots. However, how would this market change, provided the implementation of the New European Bauhaus, i.e. the European Committee’s urban and architectonic policy, led to – around 2040–2050 – blocking investments on new plots, or to environmental fees being so high that they would become economically ineffective? That would be yet another point of view on the future merge of personal and office spaces, because the renovation, adaptation, and retrofitting boom caused by such regulations – which are by all means legitimate from the perspective of the common good – would be all about changing function, dividing, or overbuilding of existing buildings with spaces for which there would be the highest demand. Such limitation to the territorial expansion of cities would certainly help achieve the popular vision of a 15-minute city...

The above scenarios, even though they might seem a bit exotic, can easily be put to practice. If you’ve read the report New Normal in the Workplace having implementing possible new work models in your company in mind and you’ve already selected a model or two, please try the following exercise. Try to describe in less than twenty sentences what would your company look like and operate in this model – which aspects would fare better and which worse than today. Then please try to imagine the next step of the transformation – adjusting to the reality in which one of the three scenarios I describe dominates. Which of them confirm your selection, and which would require of you to redesign your office anew? Which seem to correspond in any manner to designed changes in corporate culture? Answers to these questions will differ depending on a case.

Having dealt with foresight and futures studies for over a decade, I have only strengthened my conviction that time travels into the future only make sense if they help us make better decisions today. I hope that this journey – two steps – into the future, on which I took you in the previous paragraph, will additionally deeply inspire you and offer a new clue for reading New Normal in the Workplace. I wish you many more fruitful reflections!

Kacper Nosarzewski
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