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The ‘New Normal’: Parsing the Arguments

A recent article in The Guardian, titled ‘Covid will force us to reimagine the office. Let’s get it right this time,’ raises some important issues about home-based work that deserve discussion. Professor Sailer makes the following three assertions:

‘Against all odds, working from home [since the beginning of the pandemic] was more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity had increased during the first two months of lockdown.’

‘Research suggests that unplanned face-to-face interactions are important drivers of new ideas, an effect often known as the ‘strength of weak ties.’ In fact, research has shown that weak-tie interactions have suffered disproportionately during the working-from-home period.’

… and …

‘Therefore, we should not give up on the idea of a shared workspace for everyone in the future. Not only is it impractical to suggest working from home as a standard response during a a housing crisis, where many lack the opportunity to set up a permanent and adequately equipped workstation. Being together and sharing experiences is fundamental for both individual and organizational health and wellbeing.’

We need to rethink housing

First, the housing crisis. To the extent that new dwelling units are needed to solve it, the required number is hundreds of thousands. So one question becomes, ‘what will those new dwelling units be like?’ As many people have written, the ‘new normal’ will not—and should not—be the ‘old normal,’ or worse. This means that we should not see housing as storage for humans, that the typical size of dwelling units needs to increase, that more dwelling units need to be designed to accommodate ‘non-traditional’ families and groups, and—most relevant here—dwelling units or spaces distributed among dwelling units need to be designed to accommodate home-based work. The solution to the housing crisis should not be seen only as a matter of numbers, but as an opportunity to provide dwellings that can improve the quality of people’s everyday lives.

What about the importance of informal interactions in the office?

The new normal should take into account both people’s preferences as well as the environmental imperative of reducing fossil fuel use by reducing commuting

What about the other issues? On one hand, Professor Sailer writes that people like working at home, and report increased productivity. Other studies indicate that people like it because they don’t have to spend as much time commuting, they can spend more time with their family, etc. But on the other hand, at least in some cases, working at home prevents the ‘weak ties’ that come from unplanned interactions, that may be important to creative group work. So offices where people are together should probably not disappear altogether.

But again, the ‘new normal’ should perhaps not be like the ‘old normal.’ The new normal should take into account both people’s preferences as well as the environmental imperative of reducing fossil fuel use by reducing commuting. So what we may be looking at is a ‘hybrid’ situation, in which people who do creative work that relies on group interactions, informal meetings, or weak ties of other kinds, spend part of their time working at home, and part of the time in an office or workplace.

The need for flexibility

For a particular business today, the right balance between time spent together in the office or workplace and time spent working at home needs to be determined. Some may find that people can work at home most of the time; others may find that people should be in the office most of the time. And the balance may change over time. This points to the need for flexibility both in office design and in the ways that uses are distributed in the city. We shouldn’t have to choose between working in the office 100% of the time and working at home 100% of the time, but be prepared to design the right balance for each situation, and to recognize that the balance might change over time.

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