In 1993 the management guru Peter Drucker argued that “commuting to office work is obsolete.” As of last year, his vision hadn’t quite come true: nearly half of global companies in one survey still prohibited remote working. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly millions of people started doing their jobs from home. Work will never be the same.
The Bill Gates prediction that by 2050, 50 per cent of the working population will work at home seems to be a gross underestimate now that we have been struck by the pandemic. Other predictions about life in the future stated that intense and demanding projects will alternate with ‘sabbaticals’ – some paid for by organisations, others self-funded.
The Egyptians had their pyramids, the Romans had aqueducts, Victorians their railways. More recently we have created gigantic glass and steel boxes of desks, whiteboards and water coolers. Are they destined to be monuments to a past age after the pandemic?
The roots of BMMI in Bahrain goes back to the East India Company which was set up by British merchants in 1600 and was hugely significant when it comes to the history of offices. The company created over time a very large and complex bureaucracy generating huge volumes of documents. At the company’s headquarters they created the bureaucracy to process information and make decisions about things that were taking place thousands of miles away.
I’m a big fan of Charles Handy and in his book The Elephant and the Flea he discusses the future of everything from education, work and marriage, to capitalism, management, religion and society. He carefully considers the balancing act that both individuals (fleas) and larger organisations (elephants) will face in the future.
Increasingly, technological advances mean the disappearance of the middle or disintermediation. This means that many careers will radically transform or vanish altogether in the coming decades. He suggests that many people will learn to develop a portfolio career, expecting to change directions dramatically throughout their lives.
A multitude of fleas, consultants, suppliers, sub-contractors, and advisers will support larger organisations, without being full-time employees. He predicts the office will become more of a club house, with meeting rooms, gyms and even overnight accommodation and that transformation will change even the look of our city skylines.
Now what about those who survive as salarymen and salarywomen? Research suggests that if people aren’t in the office at least part of the week, relationships with fellow workers suffer, as does collaboration. There is also evidence that a lack of personal interaction can hurt employees’ odds of being promoted. Instead of going fully remote, companies might start by experimenting with a mix of home and office working.
If more of us end up working remotely after the pandemic, there is one change that could make work better. This could be the end of the misalignment between the school day and the workday. The gap between 3pm and 5pm in many countries is grossly unfair to working parents. Some propose making school days longer, but let’s stand up for shorter workdays.
Finally, at least one man, PT Barnum who gave us the circus, was wishing himself back in the office as he took his last gasp. “How were receipts today at Madison Square gardens?” he said as he croaked.