The definition of a place of work has radically shifted. But the importance of the “office” is more than just a space to do work. It’s a space to collaborate, to build a community and to exchange knowledge.
Before the pandemic struck, many freelancers and flexible workers gravitated towards co-working spaces rather than working from home, to provide a separation of personal and professional space and get a sense of community and “water cooler” back.
While cloud-based digital office spaces have enabled work to continue under lockdown, businesses must remember the value in face-to-face interaction and find ways to replicate or replace that when it comes to remote working.
While there may be merits to the traditional office structure, changing demands from employees, lifestyle shifts and external factors like pandemics and natural disasters mean the physical office of the past can no longer be the office of the future. Instead, businesses must look to their new digital architecture to understand how this virtual infrastructure can support employee needs.
But much like physical office design, this must be done with care and consideration to cultivate a space that fosters the same level of collaboration and productivity — using cloud as the architecture.
Head (phone) in the clouds
The appetite for cloud services was growing at a staggering rate even before COVID-19. As the world emerges, the increase is only set to continue as more businesses move to decentralise their workforce. Before the pandemic, 42 per cent of Australian businesses reported using cloud computing, compared with 31 per cent in 2015–16, according to the ABS. Unsurprisingly, larger firms of 200 or more employees have been the keenest adopters, using cloud to manage their large and often distributed workforces.
Australia’s cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) market has been booming in recent years.
Telstye research predicts it to reach around $1.2 billion by 2022. Almost half (49 per cent) of Australian businesses use more than four cloud platforms, cultivating digital workspaces that enable employees to work from anywhere. But up to now, cloud has typically been used to supplement existing physical infrastructure rather than shape a new workspace that manages the unique challenges of a decentralised workforce.
COVID-19 has changed this. Businesses that previously dragged their feet on digital workspaces are now seeing significant benefits. These include higher productivity and lower turnover, robustness in times of crisis and increased appeal to younger generations who now view flexible work arrangements as essential.
The expanding industry now means that there are cloud-based services to meet every workplace need, from video-conferencing to collaborative editing tools.
While remote working has many benefits, including productivity, employee work/life balance and business flexibility, the one area that organisations struggle with is collaboration. A Harvard Business Review study of a major technology company found that remote workers communicated nearly 80 per cent less about their assignments than co-located team members did, and in 17 per cent of projects they didn’t communicate at all.
Australian employers have held a generally more positive view. Even before the pandemic, an Indeed survey found that only 22 per cent believed remote working had a detrimental effect on collaboration, and only 18 per cent thought it contributed to less effective meetings.
This gap may indicate a difference between perception and reality, but also that some of these businesses may not have been able to observe reduced collaboration or measure effectiveness.
Some collaboration may be smarter and reduce the impacts of collaboration overload, leaving employees with more time to get their work done. Attitudes for many are divided as to the benefits of remote work; however, necessity means that employers no longer have the option to debate the merits in a time when the digital office can ensure business continuity.
One of the most important aspects to successfully offering remote work is having the right technology. Most agree, with 92 per cent of employers surveyed in January 2019 reporting that their company had invested in technology to enable remote work. That figure is likely to be 100 per cent now.
While businesses have rushed out remote working solutions practically overnight to cope with the lockdown, many haven’t invested in the full digital infrastructure and culture to replicate the collaborative nature of a physical office.
This might range from digital team drinks over Zoom or Microsoft Teams to establishing video-first best practice that maintains connectivity.
Technology is just a tool that shapes the experience in a slightly different way to what we are used to. It’s up to business leaders to architect their digital spaces with the same sophistication that goes into workplace design.
As more offices move permanently to the cloud and the digital space is increasingly critical, there will be major impacts on architects, businesses and wider society. Many analysts already predict a sustained downturn in commercial office space long after the COVID-19 crisis ends.
But there is no doubt that being together in a shared space is beneficial for collaboration, for business and for morale. But as the wider world develops, businesses must, too, adapt to what their employees and outside conditions mandate for business continuity.
The office space is no longer defined by four walls and a desk that you travel to each day, but instead digital spaces and how these are cultivated along with physical ones.
Andy Hurt, managing director ANZ, Poly