Business Casual: Workspace Reboot

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine what the workplaces of the future will be like, beyond the current COVID-19 concerns.
susan percy smiling at camera with red background

The work-from-home phenomenon that escalated out of necessity last spring, when so many employees had to adjust to working at their dining room tables or on their living room couches, gave us, among many other things, glimpses into the homes of doctors, teachers, TV reporters and others.

We got a chance to see their book collections, their artwork, their pets, occasionally their children. We could determine whose plants needed watering and even whose family photos needed dusting.

Home space officially became workspace for many – and still is, for some.

Well before the COVID-19 crisis, the lines between work time and home time were blurring, with business calls, texts and emails that demanded responses immediately coming before and after the typical work day as well as during. (I can remember a time when I thought it was rude for people to bring their phones to the dinner table; now it seems normal – not that I like it any better. I don’t complain about it, though; increasingly, I have my own device with me at mealtimes.)

But many have now lost the physical separation between home and work. The division has pretty much disappeared. There is no “off” switch. Couch space and desk space have all but combined, leaving practically no place to hide.

Working from home was already on the rise in recent years as a way of accommodating individual schedule preferences, helping employers keep expenses down and, most especially, cutting down on time spent sitting in traffic during long daily commutes.

It is more convenient than going into an office, often more comfortable and more economical – and, most proponents say, a boon to productivity. I’ve been doing it for some time, and I love it.

Naturally, it depends on the kind of work you do; not everyone has the luxury of working from home and either complaining about it or delighting in it. And many of those who have been “home-working” have been doing so while juggling care and schooling of their children.

Lately, I’ve been trying to imagine what the workplaces of the future will be like, beyond the current COVID-19 concerns.

There is something comforting about an office and the routines that develop – the camaraderie, the kvetching, the somebody-brought-bagels get-togethers, the birthday lunches. Not to mention the unwelcome balance provided by the loud talkers and the gum smackers and the folks who never contribute to the coffee fund but drink anyway.

Away from the office, it’s hard to replicate the collaboration aspect, whether that’s an official project or just a walk into a colleague’s office to ask a question. Sure, you can Google just about anything faster than you can cover the 20 feet to your co-worker, but there is something gained from the interaction – some connection, some energy exchange.

Yet when I am tempted to get nostalgic about offices-as-communities, I remember the meetings. Oh, lordy, the meetings. I’ve worked places where meetings seemed to be an end unto themselves – preparing for them, evaluating them, scheduling the next ones – time-consuming and soul-wearying.

Zoom, FaceTime and other digital meeting services may have their shortcomings (hardly anybody looks good, people talking over each other can be distracting), but they get the job done. People tend not to linger over them or order lunch so they can continue past the allotted time.

Business attire has been becoming decidedly more casual for the last few years. Power suits and ties aren’t what they used to be; same for pantyhose. During the height of the stay-where-you-are period, I saw an ad from a clothing retailer for a women’s outfit designed especially for business meetings with a video component: a nice professional-looking top and camo sweatpants.

It may be that work-from-homers will be longing to get out a little more and escape the confines of their in-the-house offices, whether comfortable studies or basement rooms shared with the washer/dryer.

But I am betting that business offices will look and feel a lot different – new configurations, altered floor plans, more individual spaces. I suspect we will see some schedules staggered by the day or the week and more flexible hours, maybe even a work-from-home/work-in-the-office hybrid.

Even before the pandemic, gridlock on our roadways and the related stress were prompting some much-needed rethinking of work and workspaces; now public health worries have accelerated that. What killer traffic couldn’t do, the fearsome coronavirus might accomplish.

Categories: Business Casual, Opinions