Four times more people will work remotely after the pandemic – transforming cities and how we define ‘the office’ forever, predicts entrepreneur and Spaces customer Yurij Riphyak
“Sorry for my video being off. My boyfriend and I both work from our studio apartment: I’m using the coffee table and he is using the kitchen table. But when we both have our calls at the same time… we decided to toss the coin on who gets the room and who goes to the bathroom. I lost the bet today.”
– Erica, software developer, New York City.
“The main problem is that no one believes you’re working. Your kids, your wife – they can just casually walk by and interrupt you on whatever business they have. When my mom visited a couple of weeks ago, I used to escape and work from a park bench.”
– Sundeep, product manager, San Mateo CA.
“The line between working and personal life is blurred. Before it used to be clear: when you are in the office, you’re working, when you’re at home, you’re relaxing. Now pretty much everything feels like work.”
– John, HR director, Denver CO.
While pyjamas may not yet have become the new standard for business attire, working at home has become the norm for millions of people. A recent survey of 15,000 Americans by the University of Chicago (the most comprehensive research to date) has shown that the percentage of days employees work beyond the office HQ post-pandemic (whether that’s at home or from another location), is likely to be 22% – more than a four-fold growth from the 5% before 2020.
Indeed, many people discovered the perks of working from home in 2020, which included cutting the commute, spending more time with loved ones, or having more control over their schedules. And yet, another survey suggests that the story is not quite so simple. According to research by YouGov, 36% of Americans cited the lack of a proper workplace among the biggest challenges they faced while working from home.
Over the last few months, I’ve been conducting my own research on this topic, which confirms the findings – as well as providing additional insights. As part of our new product discovery roadmap for YouTeam, I conducted more than 100 ‘deep’ interviews with software engineers, graphic designers, startup founders, and managers of different levels. The quotes you read at the beginning of this article are all taken from the transcripts of those interviews (though the names have been changed).
Again and again, the absence of a suitable workspace was mentioned by the respondents as the top challenge while working from home – far more often than, say, the lack of socialising or Zoom fatigue.
While those with a dedicated workspace at home said they’d be happy to continue working remotely after the pandemic, the majority of those who didn’t said they would be looking to return to the office sooner rather than later.
From garages to virtual reality
To better understand how this ‘suitable workspace’ problem can be addressed, it’s important to first define what ‘home’ means in the given context. It is not just the habitat per se – the space designed according to our personal taste, where we feel most secure. It also has a broader sense, which might better be described as ‘proximity’.
For many, proximity means working from somewhere that doesn’t require a commute, that allows you to pop home for a lunchtime nap in your own bed, or enables you to pick up your children from school or daycare at a sensible time.
So, where are we to find this ideally proximate workspace?
Having a dedicated (and sound-proofed) room in your house may be ideal – if you can afford it. For those living in smaller houses, companies like Yardadu offer pre-assembled backyard office sheds, starting at $25K.
Or how about your garage? In places with warmer climates, such as Florida and California, this is fairly normal. Some of the key stops on Steve Blank’s classic Visitor’s Guide to Silicon Valley are the actual garages that witnessed the humble beginnings of Hewlett Packard, Apple, Google, and some other giants that are now shaking up the world. The HP garage even has a memorial plate in front of it, saying ‘The Birthplace of Silicon Valley’.
But what about those of us who aren’t lucky enough to inhabit a separate-standing property or multi-bedroom penthouse? VR can present a creative opportunity by creating a separate immersive work environment with minimum need for actual floor space. Interested? Facebook’s Oculus Infinite Office will allegedly be available to Oculus Quest 2 users in 2021.
A place for the office?
To take a step back for a moment (and to remove our VR headsets): are we even ready to give up offices altogether? After all, there’s lots of research that shows they are still valuable for productivity, collaboration and inspiration. What if it was possible to have the best of both worlds – to bring comfortable workspace closer to where people live, say as close as the corner store or coffee shop?
A controversial project by a Saudi Arabian crown prince offers a glimpse at one version of this future. Unveiled in January, with the planned cost of $500bn, the Line is the most ambitious urban development project the world has ever seen.
As the name suggests, the plan is for a city 106 miles long – a thin green line in the Arabian desert. It will be the first modern city without cars. No cars mean no streets, no roads, no parking lots. The Line will exist as a chain of mixed-purpose clusters, approximately four blocks wide – meaning everything (shopping, restaurants, entertainment, schools, healthcare, and, yes, work) will be within walking distance.
Sounds great, right? Perhaps. But surely it’s possible to have a workplace within walking distance from everyone’s home without spending half-a-trillion dollars on building a 106-mile-long oasis in the desert?
One way may be something like Airbnb for coworking – where people convert parts of their homes to hyper-local working hubs, or simply allow other people to rent their space on an hourly basis while they are away.
A non-profit tried to do this in 2015 in Stockholm and few other cities, but it did not get very far, while another take on the same idea has been just launched by a startup – again in Stockholm. There must be something special that makes Swedes more open to let strangers work from their homes…
Another possible solution could be something like a chain of local ‘anti-cafes’ – almost like Starbucks, but quieter, cleaner, and with more power sockets.
Perhaps a better way could be coworking office space. In the last few years, many companies, from fintech phenomenon Brex to financial services industry Standard Chartered have swapped their HQs for more flexible (and cheaper!) office hubs. At YouTeam we use Spaces, operated by IWG, as our office hub in San Jose, California.
And coworking is no longer confined to urban areas. The rise of coworking in the suburbs (accelerated by the pandemic) means that working closer to home, with all the benefits of a suitable workspace, could be within reach for an increasing number of the world’s workers.
We may have to say goodbye to our days of working in pyjamas, but perhaps we can say hello to a more convenient solution and a happier way of working for the future.