In the last seven days I have managed to get to our offices in Bristol twice and worked there instead of working from home, something I have been doing since March when we all got locked down. It looks like I might go to our office now and then to work. However what is the future of office working, not just for me, but for everyone? This got me thinking about my office working experiences in the past and into the future.
When I was teaching back in the 1990s, I had a desk in an office, it was my desk and though it was occasionally used by part-time lecturing staff after hours, generally I was the only person who sat there… Well I say sat there, during my working week I was spending over 50% of my time in the classroom and then I was having coffee or lunch, or going to the library, attending meetings and other stuff. I don’t think I had that much time sitting at the desk. So it became as most desks do in teaching staff offices, a place to put my coat, my marking and other stuff. It was more for storage than for doing stuff. I should also make it clear that there was no computer on that desk nor did I use a laptop. If I wanted to use a computer I had to go somewhere else, so even less time at my desk.The office had phones, but I didn’t have a dedicated phone. I remember also the shared office was rather busy, so it wasn’t conducive to working at a desk due to the noise and constant interruptions.
I spent over a year working for a Museum and then I did have a desk and I spent a fair amount of time at that desk. It was also the first time my desk had a computer on it as well, which got used extensively for communicating and writing. The desk also had a phone!
In 2001 I was appointed Director of the Western Colleges Consortium and I remember talking to my line manager and he was clear that I didn’t need to come into the office every day and to spend some time working from home when I wanted to. This was the first time I started to change my working patterns from going into the office on a daily basis. Though initially based in Radstock we then moved to dedicated offices in Keynsham. I was responsible for dusking for the office I have to admit I went slightly overboard I had a L-shaped desk with an attached table. The office wasn’t really big enough for it (and the other desks), but the result was I had loads of desk space and a table for meetings. I did use two computers at the time, a PC and a Mac so I had two screens. My job meant that I wasn’t in the office everyday, so I got use to working from home, but also out on the road as well.
In 2006 I joined Gloucestershire College, this time I had a dedicated desk, but was “allowed” to work from home one day a week or so. It was when I moved to Gloucestershire College, that my thinking on “having a desk” changed quite a bit. Initially I was based at the old Brunswick Campus, and I “borrowed” a desk in the library office from a colleague who was on maternity leave as my “allocated” desk was at the top of a tower block quite a hike from the library where my team was based and worked.
When we moved to the new college building in the Gloucester Docks, the office space we were allocated was a lot smaller than before. I recall having a discussion with the team about desking. The main feedback I got was that people wanted to have a desk so they could put their stuff and work somewhere. As the majority of the team were customer facing (working with staff and students out in the library and elsewhere in the college), some were part-time, it was apparent to me that if I gave everyone a desk (and it would be a small desk) that they would be empty most of the working week. We also had team members from other campuses coming to the Gloucester Campus and needing somewhere to work (and leave their stuff).
So rather than have twelve small desks, we made a decision to have only six big desks and a fair few large cupboards. We would have a clear desk policy and people would store their stuff in the cupboards. We also then had the space to have a sofa in the office as well and a coffee table.
It has to be said, partly down to the C-shaped aspect of the office, that I had a “separate” desk in a part of the office. However I was very clear to the team that they could use my this desk and was also equally clear, that if I arrived and they were using the desk, they would remain at the desk and I would find somewhere else to work.
I was also quite clear that we would review the situation in six months and if it wasn’t working we would change the space. Well, what happened, after six months we actually gave away two desks out of the six to new admin staff.
Even with a job in a college, I still worked from home on a regular basis, usually when I needed peace and quiet, but the job also entailed working across multiple campuses, so got into a routine of being able to work at a range of desk situations.
In my next job I had a variety of desks in various locations, but spent a lot of time moving between sites, travelling, but also working from home. Due to building work, I never did get my own office before I left.
When I started at Jisc in 2015, I wasn’t allocated a desk as there wasn’t one, but after an office re-shuffle, I did get a desk. Though it was “my” desk, I kept it clear, so on those days when I wasn’t in the office anyone could use it, and they did. I could tell because they re-adjusted my chair!
A year or two later, the situation changed and in the Castlepark office we moved completely to hot-desking. My only complaint about that was we had to use a booking system to book desks, and though I see why people think this is necessary, the reality is that it results in more empty desks. I wrote this article in 2016 on library PC booking systems, but the essence of the article is the same for desk booking systems.
In the new offices at Portwall Lane, though there was still a desk booking system, however like the London office there was a range of working spaces that didn’t need to be booked, so the space worked much better.
Before the covid-19 pandemic and in my new role at Jisc, I found I was working less with a team and more remotely, though not necessarily at home. I would work from home, but I was also travelling a fair bit, usually in London at least one or twice a week, but also further afield as well. I would quite happily work in a hotel room, or a coffee shop or on the train. There was a range of tools that I used to communicate and collaborate and it was quite simple to sync documents through online storage. I did much prefer attending meetings in person, though I was often given the choice of attending online. However I found those mixed-mode meetings never worked very well, so depending on my role in the meeting would determine if I was online or in-person in the room.
With lockdown I was forced, like everyone else to work from home. This means the mixed-mode meeting died and we all had to participate on an even footing. Just prior to lockdown I did publish a post on my thinking about the future of working from home that we might see during the lockdown. Despite having worked from home before, working from home during a pandemic lockdown was nowhere the same thing and I had to adapt quickly.
After five months of working from home, I really felt like it would be nice to return to the office, even if it was for the day. So it was with some relief and a little trepidation that last week I went to our office in Bristol. This was my first time in a Jisc office since March, actually been anywhere for work apart from my desk in the house.
I did think about catching the train, but in the end drove to Bristol, parked and walked the rest of the way to the office. It was nice and sunny so was rather pleasant. It was an easy drive into Bristol and there was minimal traffic. Very few people around as well, unlike when I have walked to the office before. I stopped for coffee at Chatterton’s Café, however it was takeaway only and they were serving through their kitchen window. Nice coffee though.
Most of the office is closed or out of use, so we are using one floor and only a few meeting rooms. Lots of social distancing and deep cleaning happening. With so few people in, the office has lost its buzz and atmosphere. It feels bleak and rather dead compared to how it is normally. Had a few meetings and lunch with my new boss. The offices closed at 4pm, so I was out of the building before then, walked back to the car and headed home. Even with those restrictions it was nice to work in a different environment again.
So what of the future of office working, not just for me, but for everyone?
The BBC this week reported that there was no plan for a return to the office for millions of staff.
Fifty of the biggest UK employers questioned by BBC have said they have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future.
Within my own organisation, decisions are still being made about the future of the offices we have. However it is clear that we won’t be going back to what we had before. Even being a pretty much blended workplace anyhow, the covid-19 pandemic forced a non-office culture on everyone. Of course everyone won’t be able to work from home, and not everyone will want to work from home. Giving people a choice is important. What I am hoping to see in the future is that office space encourages and enables different ways of working and that rows of desk working staff is not the norm for the future.
Within that BBC article was also a comment about how the changes to office culture, is having a knock-on impact with those businesses who depend on those office workers. This was something I recognised as I was in Bristol this week with a number of local coffee and sandwich places still closed because of covid-19 and it looks like they won’t re-open in the near future either.
As we move into the new academic year I am not expecting to be doing much travelling. Speaking to colleagues in universities across the country, they are clear that they are expecting most meetings (internal as well as external) will continue to happen online. In addition most people have been saying they will not travel to meetings, nor will they necessarily have the budget for travel either.
Personally I am expecting to go to the Bristol office more frequently, but I am not expecting to visit our other offices in Harwell, London and Manchester at all. Well maybe London.
My working patterns were not regular or consistent before covid-19, now as we continue to emerge from lockdown I am certainly not expecting major changes to what I have been doing over the last five months, just the odd visit to the offices and not much if any other travel. This will mean less coffee and probably not going out for lunch at all, ah well.