Opinion: What is the role of the office in a post-pandemic world?

The workplace will never be the same again – and has the potential to be even better

The day I realised that COVID-19 was going to have a big impact on TOG was on 28 February – my birthday. Forty of my friends and family came to my home to help me celebrate; a large gathering of people that now, over three months later, feels almost unimaginable. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to be our last big blow-out – if I’d known I’d have stayed up a little later. 

And yet, already, there were murmurs about how this virus was going to change our lives forever. ‘Well we won’t be meeting like this in a month’s time,’ someone predicted. However, the presence of a couple who had just come back from Italy, the epicentre of the European pandemic at the time, wasn't questioned, and we all talked gravely about the probability that the UK would soon be fighting off the sickness itself. 

As February turned into March, our worst fears became a reality. TOG’s COO Dylan Murray called to tell me that there had been a confirmed case of coronavirus in one of our buildings. TOG had to evacuate its building – a scene that employees and employers will likely have seared into their memories. Questions swirled, thinly masking the panic. ‘When will we be back in?’ many asked. ‘Will we ever actually be back in?’ asked others. 

For 17 years our head office has never been empty – until now. It was a point of pride for everyone that the lights had stayed on throughout what has often been a bumpy road. Nevertheless, as our teams, colleagues and friends filed out of the TOG offices in March, I was confident that our home-working plan was viable. TOG co-founder Charlie Green and I felt a little like captains on a sinking ship, but we could also see a glimmer of hope on the horizon – that the rough waters wouldn't just be something we ‘survived’, but instead be the push that people and businesses needed to really change for the better. 

Many of the expectations I had about office life have changed during COVID-19. For the first time in living memory, we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the way people do business.  

The work revolution is being spurred by a simple question: Where do you work best? Depending on who you ask and what they do, the answer will always be different. A football player may say 'the pitch', while a writer may say 'my desk'. Some people work well at home, while others find their focus while flying at 35,000ft on a trans-Atlantic flight. Often my best ideas come in the shower or while walking my dog, DJ Solomun, on Hampstead Heath. 

After three months of WFH, we are all more mindful about what we need to do our best work. Suddenly, we are more in tune with our sleep patterns, our diets, and who we like and don't like spending time with. But it isn’t just because we are out of the office – it’s because, with their offices closed, businesses have had to ask their workers, ‘How can we help you do your best work while working away from the office?’  

I have learned to love the shape of my ‘new look’ business. There are some very clear advantages to working out of the office. I now have time to run, and non-essential travel has been replaced by video calls. The money our company would have spent on flights and hotels is saved. And so, more importantly, is our time. My calendar is clearer and, for the first time in years, people aren’t filling it. I now have time to think. 

The business community has hit the reset button. Suddenly, things that seemed important about our lives – commuting, booking holidays, and navigating office politics – aren't that important. We've started to re-evaluate what really matters. 

The same applies at home. I needed to meet with clients the other day and, with home becoming an increasingly sacred space for me to spend uninterrupted time with my family, I wanted to meet elsewhere.  

In this moment, the feeling of being out of options really showed me that the role of the workplace is going to be more valuable than ever – a dedicated space where you can come together with your colleagues, clients and customers. There's real power in the connections made in the workplace. In a recent survey we conducted with TOG members, only 54 per cent said they felt ‘connected to their colleagues’ while working from home. Offering people this human interaction – this social aspect of work, which is so vital to running creative and healthy companies – is the next great challenge of work in the 21st century. But I for one am looking forward to trying to tackle this issue with a laser-guided focus, crystal clear about what has to be done over the coming months. 

I said that Charlie and I felt like captains on a sinking ship but, today, it feels as though we have weathered the storm and are coming out stronger. When you don’t know what is in front of you, the best course of action is to slow down. But we never stopped, and will continue to sail bravely onwards with a re-energised purpose to truly reimagine and improve the way people work. 

Olly Olsen is TOG's co-founder