In a lot of ways, the pandemic has accelerated a transition that has been slowly morphing our world and our economy for the last 20 years. The era of technology, which began in earnest in the 90s, is truly about two forces working in combination: the rise of software and the power of connectivity.
Famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen coined the phrase “Software is eating the world” years ago and his comment has proven prophetic. At all levels and across all industries, computer programming has streamlined and improved operations. The most powerful of all software might be Microsoft’s groundbreaking Excel, so excellently profiled in this Packy McCormick post in Not Boring.
Connectivity, the ability to interact with other people across vast distances, has been somewhat of an afterthought. Now, after a year of working from home and trying to maintain or build a business, connectivity has become vital to our daily lives. Did any of you ever think you’d be having Zoom socials with your friends, each of you sitting in your own homes and having a drink together to pass the boredom of lockdowns? Did any teacher ever imagine they would have to manage a class of kids from a tiny computer screen, each face just a tiny little thumbnail in a Google Classroom window?
As we start removing strict distancing measures and we see the end of permanent work from home, there is a major conflict that will happen within our corporate world- what does the return to premises actually look like for workers? When I have these discussions with people, we view it through the lens of how it has been done for several generations. We forget that corporate office culture was almost non-existent prior to WW II.
Don’t believe me? Look at this picture from the 1920s of Yonge and Adelaide. Do you notice any building bigger than a couple of stories?
The rise of office buildings and centralized corporations came out of WWII and has been the driving force of our economy ever since. But that worked then because connectivity required people to interact face-to-face. There was no Zoom. There was no Excel or Google Docs. There definitely wasn’t a computer in your pocket like all of us carry around now. Now, ALL of us have now seen the great alternatives to in-person interactions. There is no way to put the rabbit back in the hat now that we have seen what working from home is all about.
Now we are entering a real period of change in our working world. The old ways of commuting to the office Monday to Friday will still appeal to many people, but for some, especially younger people who grew up with technology, there is no going back to the office full-time ever again. The massive HQs will slowly recede as people realize they can do 90% of their work remotely, harnessing the power of software and connectivity. I don’t know what will remain although I am not calling for the end of the office structure.
This change will have impacts beyond the current generations. I was born 30 years after WWII ended and yet my career until March of 2020 consisted of going to some sort of office daily. Corporations are not just going to quit the centralized office culture easily or without some fighting. Remember that many of the key decision-makers in corporations have been office denizens for 30 or more years.
The successful companies will be ones that mesh the camaraderie and collaborative nature of in-person environments with the flexibility that technology affords. Which companies that will be is anyone’s guess.