We know the global pandemic stopped the clock on office life and, even as companies plot their return to the workplace, we’ve accepted that the working world will not be going back to the way it was before. But what is less well understood is the effect of the coronavirus crisis on what it means to be “present” at work. A reimagined idea of presence promises to be one of the most fundamental shifts to emerge from the pandemic. It is also one of the most underappreciated—especially in relation to its impact on the way office buildings are designed and run.
Before COVID-19 disrupted the global economy, there was a commonly held understanding of what it meant to be “present” at work—it typically meant daily attendance at a particular office building. There was even a term—presenteeism—to describe the phenomenon at its extreme, and a well-rehearsed set of protocols around meetings and collaboration based on co-location in a physical space. Recruitment, training, promotion, and other forms of career advancement were generally considered to depend entirely on physical presence in the workplace for a large majority of working time.
However, since COVID-19 accelerated pre-existing trends towards more remote and flexible working, the concept of being “present” at work has shifted. Presence has become more complex: it no longer relies on physical co-location—employees can also be “digitally present” within the workplace as they work more flexibly across a range of settings, including the home, using online collaboration tools and other digital support. Individuals and teams are thus positioned across a continuum of time, place, and space, not assigned to a single office. “Presence” was once synonymous only with synchronous work, in which people work together on things at the same time (usually at a single office location). Now it is also an aspect of asynchronous work, in which work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone and the cloud is the key location.