Apart from the occasional indigestive gurgling of the water cooler, they’ve been silent for months: glass and steel Mary Celestes, each one frozen in a pre-Covid world of work that no longer exists.
Will we ever come to love our offices again?
Even before lockdown, the relationship had been going through a rocky patch. While they remained loyal, we were getting itchy feet. Their outdated fixation on status and 9-to-5 working was getting under our skin. Jealously we watched as new and exciting alternatives sashayed into the neighbourhood: WeWork with its cool co-working vibe; hipster coffee shops offering caffeine and no-questions-asked Wi-Fi; grungy factory converts where meetings were off limits and pinball machines outnumbered PCs.
No wonder that as soon as the pandemic struck, we leapt at the chance for a trial separation. It’s not you, it’s us, we told our offices, without believing it.
Several months on, we’re filing for divorce. Since March, half of all office workers have abandoned their offices to work from home. Some may never go back. According to one survey, 41 percent of employees are likely to remain working permanently from home. WFH is about to become BAU.
Financially, remote working would appear to make sense. Offices are costly, requiring armies of cleaners, technicians, maintenance workers and receptionists. Working from home shifts these costs (and roles) from employers to employees. What’s not to love?
Advocates of home working also claim that it’s also more productive and that home-based teams are less likely to be distracted by office politics. So impressed are these firms that sixteen percent of them say that from now on they’ll only recruit home-based workers.
But I’m not convinced. I believe that offices are an essential component in our organisational ecosystem and that once our fling with remote working has fizzled out our love for them will return.
First, offices are the most effective places for building and maintaining work relationships. Teams and Zoom are good for facilitating meetings, but since when has anything productive come out of meetings? In any business, it’s not meetings that drive innovation, but the informal before and after conversations that take place before around them. Better than any ‘away day,’ these are the conversations that build trust and generate team spirit. They are also the first to vanish when work goes online.
Second, offices are essential for developing the careers of the young. Working from home is all very well for networked Baby Boomers, but for Millennials, with no contacts, role models or advisers, the experience can be all too isolating. No wonder that companies are beginning to fret about ‘cultural drain’ among new employees.
And finally, offices are integral to who we are, and who we want to be.
Earlier this year, I gave a talk at the office of a major London law firm. For design and decor, their offices could rival any Medici palace. Gliding from one artful salon to another, I kept wishing I’d worn a better suit – that I owned a better suit. Which of course was the idea. Places such as these are designed to make you want to dress smart, to up your game, to be the best you can be.
That it’s all an act, a coup de theatre, is part of the appeal. The writer Lucy Kellaway called this the “great artificiality” that we buy into when entering offices:
“We pretend that our clothes are always in order and that we are entirely professional and impersonal. Whereas probably in our heads and definitely in our homes there is an awful lot of unravelling and farting going on.”
For Kellaway, wearing a perfectly ironed shirt or smart business suit might be contrived, but it’s also one of the delights of working life:
“It allows us to be a different person. And we’re all so fed up with who we are, the opportunity to be someone else, someone a little bit more impressive, is just so tempting.”
This is why I think offices are here to stay, albeit with some tweaking. We need them because they allow us to be different from who we are at home, and vice versa. Our dalliance with home working has been functional but ultimately uninspiring. If anything, it’s shown us what we’ve been missing – smart clothes, impressive surroundings, adult conversations, the chance to have meetings without being interrupted by cats, kids and Amazon deliveries.
Believe me, it’s time to ditch the hoodies and get back to the office.