Kitchen tables and ironing boards became make-shift office desks as firms made the sudden move to remote working
The risks and rewards of offering staff remote and flexible working arrangements have been bandied back and forth for some time.
Proponents argue that the traditional office structure has been rendered obsolete by modern connectivity, with greater flexibility a key tool in attracting and retaining the right kind of staff.
However skeptics have feared its impact on productivity and team cohesion – with innovation and problem-solving far more difficult when workers are not physically interacting.
Of course, the reality would be impossible to know without a significant number of companies pushing workers towards remote working – and that’s exactly what happened in 2020.
And so, the vast bulk of office-based work was sent home – with kitchen tables and ironing boards becoming the new desks, and stuttery Zoom calls replacing the conference room table.
The sudden migration created a number of issues that left IT departments in a tailspin – including the provision of equipment, and the resilience of company systems that now had to open the door to remote workers – while also keeping a multitude of threats out.
For the most part, workers and their bosses coped – with activity across large parts of the economy continuing uninterrupted despite the massive upheaval.
However, as time wore on, other issues also came to the fore, including concerns around workers’ mental health – as well as physical health – and how employees should be compensated for giving up some of their homes to the office.
But the unplanned experiment around remote working has also sparked a number of untended consequences and challenges.
With office workers deserting city centres, the businesses that rely on their lunch-time and after-work spend took a hit. At the same time, however, suburban cafes, takeaways and shops have likely benefitted.
The elimination of many people’s daily commute also wiped out a significant portion of the country’s traffic jams – in the early months of the pandemic at least. And with workers no longer tethered to a physical location, some opted to move to other parts of the country – in order to save money on rent, or be closer to their friends and family.
Some may even have mulled a more exotic move for very different reasons.
Meanwhile the very future of the office block came into focus. After all, if so many companies could continue to operate with their workers dispersed around the country – or world – did they really need to be paying large sums to rent a glass box in the city centre?
In September, Google backed out of a plan to acquire a new office development in Dublin city – a move that was seen as a bad omen for commercial property sector.
However that has not yet proven to be a tipping point for the market – and Google can hardly be seen to be a harbinger of doom for the city office, given that it still operates out of 15 buildings across central Dublin.
What perhaps will be decisive to the old-fashioned office is what happens to workers in 2021.
At the time of the initial lockdown in March many – employers and employees – may have presumed this all to be a short-term arrangement. But many are now fast approaching the one year anniversary of their decampment, with no timeline in place for a return to “normality”.
But even when a safe path of return is clear, a number of new questions will arise.
That includes how many workers will want to go back into the office, how many employers will insist that they do so, and whether kitchen table-cum-office desk is here to stay.