How The Shock Of Our Current Office Could Lead To A Positive “Officeverse” Climate
mANY offices closed during the COVID-19 pandemic have inherent problems even before the crisis. Traditional offices are often uneven, uncomfortable, uncreative, and unproductive. COVID-19 has forced millions of people to work and live in ways they never tried before, leading to a state of “office shock.” The fix becomes a liquid. Unexamined assumptions about offices and office work open probing questions that require careful consideration. It took a global pandemic to shake open executive minds to the possibility of better ways of doing office work.
In addition, many traditional offices are climate negative, while others are anti-climate. But overall, the climate impacts have improved during the shake-up with the promise of more to come.
Offices and offices can be an important factor in positive climate choices. Buildings and their construction are among the largest contributors to the world’s resource use. Considering the opportunity that offices can have to change the narrative for a better future, the legendary architect Frank Duffy offers a strong indictment of traditional offices:
The Taylorist office building has become a perfect machine for delivering environmental degradation because it is entirely a product of supply-side thinking, which overrides the interests of the user, ignores the public good and ignores the collateral damage.
Why do we work in offices? During the COVID-19 shutdown a lot of productive office work was done without offices. Hybrid work and flexibility are now normal, but the future of work is ready. The shock of the office will continue for many years to come. And that can be an opportunity for positive climate action.
COVID-19, along with the internet, are causing the office to shake up, revealing the impossible future for offices and offices that are now possible. An emerging “officeverse” is shaping new models of an ever-changing mix of work, place, and time options for living and working.
Climate Positive Offices
In the corporate real estate industry, Duffy argues that the cause of office climate abuse is the office supply chain and its incentives. Facility managers should be rewarded for maintaining more sustainable environments, not just for cost reduction. Design and construction professionals should be rewarded for making the most imaginative and efficient use of existing spaces, rather than a new building. Finance and development providers should be rewarded for sustainable management of what already exists, rather than pursuing new ventures.
We can all do a lot to improve the innovation capabilities of offices. Critical choices must be made to change consumption, produce with circularity, and change the planet. Our current state of office shock may be a necessary spark for choices about our future that prevent future disasters. The shock of the office provides an opportunity to reverse many unsuccessful attempts to do the right thing. At the same time, the window of opportunity is quickly closing.
The Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, reacted to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report published on April 4, 2022, saying the report revealed “a litany of broken climate promises” by governments and businesses. He even accused many of lying when claiming to be on track to limit future warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In a strongly worded rebuke, Guterres said: “This is a file of shame, listing the empty promises that put us firmly on the path to an unlivable world.”
While technical solutions are necessary, they are not sufficient to change behavior. To have an impact, we need to change minds and systems. A positive climate future must include social, economic, political, and cultural changes to meet this urgent need and provide a way to assess the range of choices from net-zero, where people and offices do not contribute to the release of greenhouse gases, to Regenerative, where active steps can be taken to develop and renew the resources of our planet. Finding consensus on the choices that enable us to fight this struggle for survival is essential for a better future.
A sustainable future requires making choices now to make a positive impact on the climate. The office can be the place where organizations come together to pursue a shared goal.
Here are some ideas to use for a positive office climate:
- Use a new method of obtaining the product. To take advantage of the opportunity to surprise the office, start looking at getting the product like pets — something you own for its entire life. Just as any person should carefully consider the act of acquiring a pet and its long-term consequences, we should start thinking the same way for every product we acquire. The transfer of ownership of goods should include a responsibility to resell, recycle, or even repurpose.
- Think of the “office” as more a verb rather than a noun. As a noun, office means office spaces, or buildings. As a verb, it describes work processes and social interactions to get work done. Changing the meaning of office to a verb is consistent with the officeverse — the future anytime/anywhere world of work that better fulfills its individual, organizational, and community purposes.
- Prototype ways to improve the impact of officing climate. We can now do most office work without offices. Ask yourself where, when, how, and even why you work as you think about serving the climate positively. Can you make more climate-positive choices for working and living?
- Shift to a more circular business model. In working towards a sustainable future, we must make a strategic choice: control the linearity of the value chain or move towards a more circular business model. The latter has an optional business model: produce only when needed, and offer to repair, recover, recycle, or – even better – reuse basic materials.
Bob Johansen is a sociologist focused on top leadership in shape-shifting organizations. Joseph Press a workplace architect, experienced digital transformation advisor and design futurist dedicated to designing a better future. Christine Bullen is a professor of information systems who pioneered the critical approach to success factors and the strategic application of IT in business management. All authors are affiliated with the Institute for the Future. Their new book, Office Shock: Creating a Better Future for Work and Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Jan. 17, 2023), shares how to prepare for the emerging officeverse. Learn more at http://officehock.org.
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