It’s time to get back to the office!
Musings of Dr Paul Redmond, Director of Student Experience and Enhancement at University of Liverpool.
Apart from the occasional 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 love our offices again?
Even before lockdown, our relationship with our offices was going through a rocky patch. While they remained loyal, we were getting itchy feet. Their obsession with nine-to-five working and reluctance to move with the times was beginning to get under our skin.
Jealously, we watched as exciting new alternatives sashayed into the neighbourhood: WeWork with its co-working and start-up vibe; hipster coffee shops offering convenience and free Wi-Fi; grungy factory conversions where meetings were off limits and pinball machines outnumbered PCs.
No wonder that as soon as the pandemic struck we jumped 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 worked from home. Some may never go back. According to Gartner, 41% of employees are likely to remain working from home. WFH is about to become BAU.
When budgets are constrained, on the face of it, remote working makes sense. City offices are costly, requiring armies of cleaners, technicians, maintenance workers and receptionists. Working from home shifts these costs (and roles) from employers to employees.
Supporters of home working also claim that it’s more productive and that home-based teams are more task-focused than those based in offices. Workers themselves largely agree. Sixteen percent of firms say that from now on they will only be recruiting remote workers.
But I’m not convinced. I believe the office is still an essential component in our organisational ecosystem and that once our fling with remote working has fizzled out our love for offices will return.
First, offices remain the most effective places for building and maintaining work relationships. Platforms like Teams and Zoom are excellent at facilitating meetings but since when has anything productive come out of meetings? In any organisation, it’s not meetings but the informal chats, unscheduled encounters, snatched conversations, competitive rivalry and shared sandwich platters from which the molten stream of innovation flows. For this, home working doesn’t cut it; physical presence is required.
Second, offices are essential for developing the careers of the young. Working from home is all very well if you’re a well-networked Baby Boomer, but for Millennials, starved of contacts, role models and sage advisers, the experience can be all too isolating. No wonder companies are beginning to worry 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 offices of a prestigious law firm. The design and décor was as elegant and graceful as a Medici palace. As I glided from one sumptuous room to another I kept wishing I’d worn a better suit – that I owned a better suit. Which of course was the idea: such places are designed to make you want to dress smartly and up your game, to be the best you can be.
That it’s an act, a piece of 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 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, colleagues, it’s time to ditch the hoodies and get back to the office.