Week 63 —The Death of the Office

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Week 63 —The Death of the Office

Will a global pandemic be the push to move away from traditional office space?

I’ve lost track of how many weeks since I was last in the office. However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. For many traditionally office bound employees, it is possible to do your job from home and the only reason for the office was a mix of old school traditions and the social aspect of face to face interaction. The current global pandemic has demonstrated quite clearly that for the majority of office workers an office is not a need to have but at best a nice to have. Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rules like people who need access to specialized equipment or those who serve the public in a front line capacity but many white collar professionals are realizing that working from home is viable. In past posts, I’ve talked about the struggle of being a working parent while trying to stay productive and how we need to be more forgiving to ourselves recognizing we can’t be fully productive during a global pandemic while trying to balance childcare. This week I want to talk about whether the concept of the office will survive the pandemic and what could come next in terms of where white collar professionals work.

This week Shopify announced that its office would remain closed until 2021 and the default model would be working remotely. Other companies like Basecamp are also moving to get rid of office space as it becomes more obvious that this pandemic is not ending anytime sooner (e.g. until there is a vaccine). From a public service point of view, the “return to occupancy” as it is dubbed in bureaucratic speak remains unclear with wild rumors and speculation flying rampant if the public service subreddit is any indication. Depending on the Department and who you believe, the return to work could be as soon as the summer or as late as 2021. When offices do open back up, there are a lot of rumors about what that might look like including 50% occupancy, gaps between cubicles, no use of elevators and much more. This post isn’t to speculate on what a return to occupancy looks like but rather a broader discussion on whether there needs to be a return to the office at all. For some out there, a return to the office is mandatory because they need to access specialized equipment or tools which they can only do at a lab or the office. Others may do public facing jobs where being in an office is the only way to do the job. However, for many more who do “back office” work like policy, program development, finances and other corporate services a return to the office doesn’t seem that important. If this pandemic has taught the public service anything it is that public servants can do their jobs pretty well (and in some cases with just as much productivity) without being in the office. Stressful circumstances aside (global pandemic, balancing young children) is there a reason to rush people back into the office when childcare returns or when the schools re-open? Can the work of these people continue to be done over video conferencing, shared document collaboration, the phone and email? If your answer is no, then why not? I will be the first to admit that an in person social connection is powerful and arguably important for certain jobs. However, the risk of outbreaks and infection do not seem a worthy price to pay for a strictly social connection where one may expose themselves to COVID-19 on public transit or in the office especially when their job can be done from home.

So what does this mean for the future of the office? Tech companies tend to be a few years ahead of the public service. After all, the public service only in the last few years has made a major push for open office space and activity based workplaces. The Government of Canada is a major landlord and leaser of commercial real estate. I don’t see a near term departure from those two facts. However, I do see a push from employees and forward thinking managers to re-think the office even when things open back up. There will be demand that working from home continues post pandemic. Most employees will expect regular opportunities to work from home. Some may request full time working from home arrangements. I don’t see a future where working full time from the office is the norm unless someone really wants that arrangement. Not to mention the logistical challenges caused by how we move a large group of people from their homes to the office in a COVID-19 world. Will people feel safe taking public transit? Not everyone has a car nor can everyone afford parking. Can an employee who is perfectly capable of doing their job from home request an arrangement to continue working from home given that the last 10 weeks or so has proven how possible the arrangement is.

I think the big tipping point for the public service will come when a few teams declare themselves as virtual first. When an executive says that their team is going full remote and will only use office space for occasional social reasons or important meetings best held in person that will become the model that others will watch closely and may represent a gradual shift in how the public service handles office space and work culture. It remains to be seen whether this comes to pass as a result of the current global pandemic.

There has always been an interesting dialogue around work-life balance and many people who claim work life balance is crucial to their wellbeing and their decision of where to work. Yet during this global pandemic, society has focused on giving space for parents to not be perfect parents but not the same space to not being perfect employees. What does that say about us as a society and what value we place in being parents vs being employees?

AI Demonstrator Projects (Regulatory Metadata, Regulatory Evaluation Platform, Rules as Code)

Regulatory Metadata: In past posts, I’ve talked about a project seeking to label regulations with metadata (e.g. impacted industries) so we can do better advanced regulatory analysis.

In the past few weeks, the conversations have focused on some of the foundational technological pieces needed to support metadata such as a data repository and data standards.

What’s exciting about this project is how there is substantial momentum and general support. It’s a matter of arranging the moving parts so they align and ensuring that there is both in-kind and financial support for the project.

The guiding principles behind this work include that the data must be portable and accessible to as many people as possible. Some risks coming up include ensuring consistency and accuracy in labeled data. Labeling over 3000+ regulations with an abundant amount of metadata is no small undertaking but without it, we are limited in what kind of regulatory analysis we can do.

Regulatory Evaluation Platform: We have shifted focus to UX/UI and quality of life improvements which are possible with the platform. We may slip in additional work too but the immediate opportunity is to focus on items which will make the platform easier to use especially as we await the results of the metadata project and our project to convert the regulatory analysis impact statement into a machine readable format.

Rules as Code: As I’ve discussed in past weeks, we wrapped up our work from last year and had a few opportunities floating around for future projects. One project which I can’t share too many details about promises to be a good opportunity if it comes through. When we finished our discovery project last year, we said the next project we wanted to do would apply the Rules as Code and Better Rules process to a rule going through the drafting process and would ultimately lead to the rule being made available as an API for public consumption. Recently, a potential opportunity has come up to do just that. Nothing is confirmed yet but I am very excited for the chance to advance Rules as Code so hopefully I can share more details soon.

One last update for this week. The work that I do at the Canada School of Public Service is only possible because we cost share with other Departments. That process started a few weeks ago and we’ve already had some success putting into place agreements with about 5 Departments already.

Week 63 was a beautiful one with basically nothing but blue skys and sun all week in Ottawa. It’s time to go outside and enjoy the nice weather in the gazebo. Have a great week!