It took all of 90 days for me to pass through each of the stages of grief for what our office used to be—a home in the middle of Montreal’s vibrant entertainment district, the Quartier des Spectacles, a stone’s throw from arts festivals and patios for post-work debriefs over beers.
Now, I’m in the acceptance phase. Like many leaders, I’m having a lot of conversations about what our office building looks like going forward. And so far, I haven’t heard from a single person who wants to go back to the 9-5 office grind.
But a hybrid work plan with fewer people in the office has a downside: I have 10,000 square feet of mostly empty office space in downtown Montreal.
We’re not alone in this conundrum. One survey found that as of March, only 10 percent of office workers in Manhattan were back in their workplaces—and less than half are expected to be back by September. Some companies have responded by downsizing. Desk sharing allowed one Seattle law firm to eliminate 25 tennis courts worth of space. But those locked into multi-year lease agreements (like me) may find themselves with more space than they know what to do with.
What if those of us reimagining what the office will look like for our employees didn’t just stop there? What if we envision what our offices could be for our community?
So I’m putting this out there for whoever is reading this: If you need space to do your work, you’re welcome to some of mine. Let’s talk.
Taking a pop-up approach
We’ve all been through a crisis these past 15 months. As leaders, we now have the opportunity to lend out our infrastructure to other businesses who don’t have the capital for their own buildings or who have fallen on hard times.
Just the other week, I was getting my bike tuned up when I overheard a bike messenger telling the shop clerk there had been a fire in their building. The landlord was being difficult, and the courier company was displaced from their office space. On the spot, I offered him some of mine.
It’s not just a nice gesture. Sharing spaces can have a ton of business-to-business value. Just look to pop-up experiences for proof. Office buildings weren’t the only real estate impacted by the pandemic. Available retail space increased by 125 percent in the U.S., U.K. and France. For many, the pop-up shop model proved to be a handy fix. They can be low-budget, short-term and quick to install. Spaces get used, money gets made and most importantly, emerging brands get an entry point with new customers.
But beyond the logistics of space and amenities, sharing our building could have real social benefits, too.
Creating a collective
If you’re reading this and thinking you could gain something from working out of our office, I hope you take the chance. After a year of social isolation, the advantages of sharing space with other people have become crystal clear.
The last time I worked in someone else’s space was as a software engineering student. I interned at Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson. Sitting in the boardroom, bouncing ideas off of people far smarter and more experienced than me was a defining moment for my career. Being treated like an equal built my confidence and taught me a lot about the value of those opportunities.
What if we could use this space to extend the same opportunity to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and careers? Coworking spaces can do wonders for employee morale and creativity. A study into these types of spaces found people were less focused on office politics and felt they could bring their whole selves to work. They also brought different skill sets and were inclined to help each other whenever possible.
When I look at these empty halls, I see a chance for cross-pollination. A place where people with different goals can bounce ideas off each other, learn and form new bonds. We can redefine our offices as something between a hot desk and an incubator.
Despite the benefits of working from home, I believe there are still useful applications for this office. Americans are happiest when they’re spending six to seven hours a day around other people. Frankly, it’s no wonder. Stronger social connectivity is directly tied to the quality of work we do.
Now we’re embracing the office as a meeting hub, a place for spitballing and collaborative work. We don’t need to be working in the same company to see the benefits –– just the same space.
Inspiration in residence
There’s a problem with this search. Office space is hard to give away these days. So we’re thinking outside the box. Now’s the perfect time for us to add an artist in residence. It may sound far-fetched, but hear me out.
Traditionally, creative life has been precarious. From Michelangelo to Da Vinci, artists relied on patrons to fund their creation. But in the 1900s, artist residencies took off as a new form of patronage. Art-loving benefactors provided the space, and, without having to worry about the logistics of rent, artists were free to devote their time to creating.
That tradition has continued. While it may seem like the artist is the clear beneficiary, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Companies like Adobe and Facebook have turned to artist residency programs to spark curiosity and excitement in-house, and to spur innovation.
We’ve experimented with this to some degree in our (remote) workforce. Poet David Whyte was the guest speaker at one of our monthly town halls this year, and my team was blown away. Everyone I’ve spoken to says they took something new and different away from his talk.
Hearing from artists gives our team a chance to change the channel on their inspiration. When I think of my future office as a kind of clubhouse, a rotating cast of artists and artisans could function a bit like exhibits in a gallery. It gives my team a reason to want to use their “free membership” and to come into the office to spark ideas.
Ask not what your office can do for you, but what it can do for your community
This isn’t about profit. When we talk about corporate and social responsibility programs, there’s a tendency to focus on money and time. But real estate is just as valuable a resource.
After months of isolation, as economies reopen and we look towards a post-pandemic future, people want an experience of togetherness. For those willing to look past what the office has traditionally been, there’s an opportunity.
Gone are the days of cubicles and 9-5 monotony. The space I want to create is less an office, and more a safety net, a stepping stone and a center for innovation. So if you’ve got an idea, I’m all ears.
Ben Crudo is CEO of Diff Agency. A retailer turned technologist, Ben is an ecommerce expert helping retailers win today and tomorrow.