4 min read

Coronavirus: could this global crisis be the end of the office as we know it?

Whether you believe the COVID-19 is a global emergency or you think it’s just exaggerated media hype, the fact is we are experiencing a global epidemic.

Situations ranging from lockdowns, to panic buying, to massive flight cancellations are happening at an alarming rate due to the prospect of a pandemic.

The virus which originated in Wuhan, China is unquestionably having an impact on people’s lives and not just from a health and safety perspective. The infection is also affecting work-life and business development. I recently read about Peloton, a streaming fitness company, whose stock is rising supposedly because people are becoming too afraid of catching infections to go to the gym. For the same reason, large events are being cancelled all over the world and companies are actively encouraging remote work and limiting -even banning- travel.

Now, if you’ve ever flown a six-hour round trip only to attend a 45-minute meeting, you’ll agree when I say this change has been a long time coming. Not due to the virus itself, of course, but for the telecommuting push. There are of course obvious benefits of people being in the same room, but many operations can be done quicker, cheaper and far more practically from a distance — plus do we really want to always deal with everyday office politics?

The benefits of flexible working are endless, both for employers and employees — no wonder the phenomenon has grown over 170% since 2005 — even so, we have yet to master collaborative mobile work.

Have you ever struggled with isolation while working from home? Welcome to the club.

According to research, loneliness and collaboration are two of the top three biggest struggles when it comes to remote work. Although we have the technology -in most cases- we tend to see physical distance as a barrier to connecting and building relationships with other people. Social media, for example, has been demonised in the past for promoting shallow interactions rather than deeper bonds, but were we really ever that close before Facebook came along? Would you really visit all of your friends or call them every day with extra meaningful conversations if it wasn’t for technology? I digress, my point is that maybe the problem here isn’t isolation itself, but how we deal with being apart from each other and the world.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Our daily routine provides structure and makes us feel safe, not to mention letting our brains go on automatic for a bit — can you imagine waking up in a different house every day and having to always figure out where the bathroom is.

When something prevents us from following our routine (i.e. travelling, emergencies, unforeseen circumstances…) we typically feel a bit more overwhelmed. It’s no different when we start working from home.

An ordinary workday may look something like this: wake up, get dressed, have breakfast, commute, chat with coworkers, join meetings, return home. When you are home for the entire day you no longer need to be wary of train schedules, spilling salad dressing all over your bag or running into Debbie from accounting in the coffee room. You are now free, you make the office rules about time, place and dress code — you could actually be naked for all anyone cares, as long as you get the job done — your day is a blank canvas. Sounds like a dream, right? Not so fast, maybe for a couple of days, but certainly not in the long run.

Let’s go back to the part about humans being creatures of habit. Most of us actually need the much-dreaded rules to function well, we need the world to be -somewhat- predictable, without surprises at every corner. We like order and boundaries, even if it’s only to try to break them and push limits. From this perspective, a blank canvas is the scariest thing one could have. You’re lost, distracted, floating in the wind.

So the question here isn’t ‘can we work well remotely?’, but rather ‘when we figure out how to work well remotely, will we need a physical office location at all?’.

Innovation loves a crisis

One thing we know for sure: scarcity is the number one key to innovation. By forcing people to stay at home in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19 we are at the same time massively creating and testing new routines and all sorts of digital platforms. The circumstances have inadvertently created a global network of prototyping volunteers for remote work, so let’s make the best of it.

People are researching better ways to communicate and be personable, however distant. When text messaging became popular we incorporated emojis in our speech so we could somehow put emotion into our messages without listening to somebody’s voice. Now with video and voice, who knows what will be the tool used to create closer connections without seeing all of someone’s body language for example?

This week MJV is hosting another 100% remote creative workshop for a group of 15 top executes in different countries. With all the different cultures and  timezones (UK, Singapore, USA and Brazil) there are obvious challenges. If you think a regular meeting could get messy, imagine a series of brainstorming exercises about some very complex company strategies. The event was supposed to take place in Dublin but Coronavirus put an end to that idea. As this event could not be postponed we dug deep into the bag of remote collaboration tools and test-proved our best of the best group dynamics to see which ones stood out.

My personal opinion is that after this experience, our company will think twice about flying in 15 people, in first class, for a workshop that could have been held remotely. Going beyond this, we want to start using virtual reality to help everyone feel even more immersed in the conversation.

At first, people may be sceptical of wearing those funny goggles but eventually once it catches on -especially once Facebook’s new VR world Horizon takes off- it will feel as natural as using Instagram filters. We’ve run projects using VR and AR  that were mainly focused on entertainment and training, but just think what this could mean for business presentations. Where you could create an actual experience by transporting the entire audience somewhere instead of relying solely on PowerPoint?

The more we have to cope with being apart, the better at it we’ll get: we will try, fail, succeed and learn. The more we learn, the more comfortable we feel towards new ideas. Tools, rules, etiquette, routines, all will be perfected to make remote work more manageable -dare I say maybe even fun?- at least until things get back to normal, that is if they ever do. Who knows what the future of work will bring, are you ready for an officeless scenario?