Like many, I have written several times in the past year about how work-from-home arrangements forced by the coronavirus pandemic will affect the future of office work.
It is now more than 10 months since emergency orders and worry about how the virus would spread in workplaces forced most knowledge workers into a telecommuting situation. It will likely be another nine to 12 months before the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
So what does this past year mean for the future of workplaces? For one, it has been become clear that it does not require daily presence in the office to connect with co-workers. So this chapter is part of a longer-term trend of disconnection from overt control by managers.
Working from home actually goes back to early in the industrial revolution, when individuals working for clothing manufacturers would take "piecework" home and get paid by the item they produced. Still, overt top-down control was taken for granted.
For example, as recently as 60 years ago, some employers were hesitant to outsource payroll for fear that the check needed to come directly from the company owner to be an effective motivator.
Dror Poleg, co-chairman of the Urban Land Institute's Technology and Innovation Council, recently wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that signs of trouble with the office market were evident even before the pandemic. In 2018, he wrote, net migration to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — centers of the "creative" class — was negative.
"For the fastest growing companies, being able to tap into talent anywhere became more important than having all their teams in one place. Smaller cities were good enough," he wrote. "The defining characteristic of this new version of the creative class may not be where it lives, but its ability to live anywhere it wants."
Poleg projects that total demand for offices will diminish to a moderate degree. Most office activity will not move to homes or to the cloud. Instead, it is likely to be redistributed within and between cities, with a variety of new employment areas popping up and saving many people the trouble of simultaneous commuting to a central business district.
Isaac Cheifetz is a Twin Cities executive recruiter. He can be reached through catalytic1.com.