Since 1970, the office space has been divided by four. In the face of the ecological crisis, its development may well be restricted. The end of the office: an inconceivable scenario in the 20th century, but probable in the 21st century?

A MOVEMENT ALREADY UNDERWAY

This is not a new phenomenon, which white collar workers are well aware of on a daily basis: the surface area of the tertiary workplace is tending to shrink. As a result of the dematerialization of work and the "rationalization of costs", its surface area has even decreased by 75% since 1970, according to the Corenet association. Fortunately for the employee, this phenomenon is accompanied by a liberation of the workplace: people now work in trains, planes, cars, at Starbucks, McDonald's, village cafés, hotels, at home, on the beach, etc.

However, what is measured at the individual level is not systematically visible at the societal level. The tertiary sector has retained an important place in urban planning in recent decades. There are several reasons for this: the continuous tertiarisation of the economy - generating a growing demand for jobs - and the need to renew the first generation of buildings, which have become obsolete.

Yet, on closer inspection, the movement is on the move. Some companies in the new economy have already passed the "zero office" milestone. Above all, the majority of companies have entered a transition period, particularly large companies that are adept at "new ways of working": a quarter of the French workforce now teleworks, flex-office development programmes are now commonplace (sharing of workstations in order to reduce their number), and the use of coworking is exploding (renting flexible workstations for short periods of time, on demand).

The players in the tertiary real estate sector are themselves relaying a renewed conception of the office: it is a question of thinking of the office as a "hub", as a base camp in which one finds oneself to socialize, to collaborate, to innovate... But not necessarily on a daily basis, not necessarily to work alone, because teleworking has become part of everyday life. So the movement is on the move; but we are not yet at the point of imagining a "decrease in the office".

DESKTOP SHRINKAGE BRAKES

The transition to a future that reduces the office's place in the city is hampered by two types of brakes. Firstly, the brake of habits, the legacy of the twentieth century, which established in the employee the need to "see each other" in order to interact well, and the expectation of socialization through work. A sociologist would say that this is a debatable postulate, an anthropologist would say that it is a belief. Example: in the past, to write a dictionary, an academy was built in which academics met; today, the encyclopedia (Wikipedia) is written by contributors who do not know each other and do not use desks. Another example is teleworking, whose growing success shows that it is not necessary to see each other to work, at least not every day. On the socialising aspect of work, while it is often stressed that "100% teleworking" is detrimental to commitment, it should also be remembered that over the last 50 years, working time has been reduced and the sociability of workers is redirected towards their families and friends. Isn't this a good thing?

Second type of brakes, more muted: the interest of public and private actors. On the local authority side, we like the office as much as the supermarket, because it means more tax revenue, more jobs and better territorial attractiveness. On the private side, it will suffice to recall that the commercial real estate market represents tens of billions of euros in investments - and revenues - every year in France. 

More generally, the brakes on the disappearance of the office stem from a certain modern-day belief that tends to make work sacred. No longer are castles, bell towers or belfries built, but office skyscrapers. Work, once invisible in the landscape, is now enshrined in gigantic towers bearing the great marks of capitalism.

But with the evolution of values and beliefs, this ritual could be called into question. The International Union of Architects has been telling us for several years, "Stop harmful and useless constructions".

THE VALUE OF OPENING A DEBATE

Two reasons could lead us in the coming years to open a public debate on the future of the office. The first reason is of an urban planning nature. Since the office is designed in the form of a concentration of buildings and business districts, thinking of the city with this office means perpetuating functionalist urban planning that separates living, consumption and work. A model of urban planning whose harmful effects are now known: travel time, cost of transport infrastructure, dormitory towns, disintegration of local communities, de-socialisation of individuals... In this sense, the development of coworking appears to be an interesting development, making it possible to relocate work and revitalise communal life.

The second reason is the ecological crisis we are facing. Building offices means: artificialisation of the soil, overexploitation of raw materials (especially sand, whose reserves are running out), energy consumption, daily waste generation, and poorly recycled waste when the building is demolished. On the other hand, going to the office means: commuting that generates pollution of all kinds (carbon and fine particles, toxicity of materials used to build cars, etc.); and infrastructure that in turn contributes to the artificialisation of the soil, the exploitation of raw materials, etc. All of this is to ultimately use the building only 20% of the time if we take into account weekends, holidays and a working day limited to 8 hours.

ZERO OFFICE: WHAT IMPACT?

Let us now imagine that the office disappears from our cities, whether as a result of gradual desertion by employees, or as a result of regulatory restrictions for environmental purposes.

The first consequence of this scenario would be to raise major legal questions. How to transpose the existing regulations on the working environment to third party workspaces? The question already arises concerning teleworking at home, where it is impossible to apply the Labour Code (air renewal, emergency exits, men-women's toilets, etc.). Tomorrow, will hotels, coworking-spaces, McDonald's and Starbucks have to apply these regulations? What about measures to ensure data confidentiality and security? What about the tax issue? Today, the location of establishments and the surface area of offices generate significant tax revenues for public authorities. Tomorrow, will it be necessary to calculate this tax on the basis of the daily location of teleworkers?

On a less down-to-earth level, the disappearance of the office would have the second consequence of rethinking urban planning. The modernist ideal, imagined in the 1950s to consist of flying cars and small houses in the meadow, has given birth to a sad landscape of dirty motorways, dull peri-urban sprawl, dull concrete buildings, soulless business districts...

So the "smart city" may not be the current city with cables and sensors on every street corner. But a city - as the 19th century English garden city model proposed - where work, leisure and consumption would be relocated close to home. In this city, local coworking would replace the centralized office tower, just as local shops are now taking over from hypermarkets.

Of course, such a scenario is debatable. For the habit of "seeing each other" at work is deeply rooted in our mores, and the construction of offices feeds the economic model of our societies. However, it is by thinking about the impact of our habits, and the world we wish to offer our children, that this scenario can be imagined collectively. First step: let workers choose their sociability, their mobility, and surf from one place to another according to their needs and desires?