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Twenty-five years ago, asked the question: why? Why do you need a physical presence to be a bookstore? Prior to that it was what was done, some saw online sales as a secondary opportunity but nobody questioned the prevailing opinion that retail was bricks and mortar based.

Now as we look around, our world view has transformed, malls are closing every day and retail is being so disrupted that the question is no longer "should we also have an online presence?" but "do we need a physical presence?" -- and there are a lot of companies that simply don't (Stitch-Fix and Zappos spring to mind).

But offices are different, right?

Until these last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven for assuming that offices were the normal operation for most businesses, but do you ever stop and think why?

The history of offices is actually quite short. The notion of offices came about as the need for collaborative work grew. We needed a place where people could come together to collaborate. Being close enabled effective communication, and it became the place where you presented yourself to your customers.

But as technology has moved on, our thinking has not. We now present ourselves to customers with websites and apps. We are able to effectively collaborate online and many of us work for companies so large that communication is generally already done online via video and email. So I am left questioning if the reasons we created offices are no longer relevant why do we cling on to the notion that offices are essential?

Now obviously there are certain situations where there is still a reason: equipment, distribution and logistics. But those needs rarely warrant the size and quantity of very expensive office space we use, often for people that do not need to be there with the technology now available. It is my belief that we are stuck in a fixed way of thinking (the way we were with retail 25 years ago), and the world is going to see massive disruption in office space the same way it did in the retail space.

Why do you still need your office?

Remote work has so many amazing benefits.

  • Costs are significantly less. Try to imagine what the costs are for those expensive office buildings. Less travel means less wasted time.
  • Access to the best employees. Right now you are limited to finding employees near your offices. This results in the opening of more offices to get access to staff. Imagine being able to get access to the best staff rather than just the closest staff. And vice versa, imagine as an employee being able to live where you want and still be able to work for the right employer.
  • Employee productivity, retention and happiness. Multiple studies show that remote employees are more productive, happier and less likely to leave.
  • Better customer engagement. We have found that being remote enables customers to engage closely with our employees. The boundaries between us and them are no longer there. We have customers and employees working side by side in ways that were impossible in the physical offices.

You will note this list focuses on the benefits to the employer. Benefits to the employees are widely talked about but shouldn't be overlooked. It is those benefits that are driving the disruption.

The risks and mitigation

That is not to say that remote is right for everyone, but I feel the ground has shifted. Previously we would have to justify why a particular role could go remote, but now I feel the conversation is reversed, we should be justifying why a role cannot go remote. The financial and productivity benefits are so overwhelming the pressure to change will push us in this direction whether we like it or not. 

The COVID-19 reaction has forced people to consider this option. Now that people are aware of it, I believe it will become a repeat of the disruption faced in retail.

So how do we prepare ourselves, what are the risks and how do we mitigate them?

Much like the agile transformation that is happening in the software world, the remote transformation is a mindset shift. You can't just hand people a laptop and say, "go home!"

We need to help people to think a little differently and learn new ways to communicate. Many are subtle changes. We need to become aware of planned and unplanned communication and how to approach each. We need to be aware of the tools and techniques, as well as the hardware and software.

We need to rethink our logistics and support networks. We need to think about company culture and how to maintain it. How do we keep employees engaged and focused on the right things?

Change is coming -- are you prepared for it?