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Why we still need offices: two reasons nobody likes to admit

Is the daily commuter rush into the office now consigned to old movie reels? The challenges of home working, plus our innate human desire to socialise, suggests our reliance on the workplace is not over

It’s a scene stamped on our popular culture – commuter drones marching inexorably towards the towering metropolis like black swarms of worker bees descending on the hive. It’s a sequence captured in countless 20th century movies from King Vidor’s unforgettable The Crowd (1927) to Billy Wilder’s workplace classic The Apartment (1960).

But as large employers fix on a template for hybrid working, will we ever witness this scene again in quite the same way? Pundits generally concur that, in a flexible new world of work, the old worker bee movie reel should now be consigned to history. We won’t swarm daily to the office tower, and some of us won’t do any commuting at all.

Office as social construct

I’m not so sure. I believe we’ll still need offices a lot more than we think – and there are two important reasons for this, based on what was happening before the pandemic rather than during it.

First, flexible ways of working, whether working at home or in a series of alternative spaces, have always been a lot more difficult for the individual to manage successfully than well-meaning advocates of new ways of working ever let on. Second, the vast majority of us no longer go to the office to work – we go there primarily to socialise with colleagues.

‘We no longer go to the office to work – we go to socialise with colleagues…’

The modern office was originally planned and designed on factory lines to reinforce the machine-like certainties of management efficiency, but it morphed over time into more of a social construct – a forum for face-to-face relationships. The worker hive turned into a social club, but few in business appeared willing to come straight out and admit it.

Golden dawn never worked out

Let’s deal with the difficulties and contradictions of working outside the office first. Flexible working is nothing new – telecoms companies like BT tried it in the 1990, often with patchy results. We were supposed to welcome a golden dawn of teleworking with the new millennium, but it didn’t quite work that way. Ironically, advances in mobile technology were countered by entrenched corporate resistance to giving employees greater flexibility. Presenteeism still ruled.

Meanwhile, research over the past 20 years taught us that the realities of working at home can be fraught. Two models of dysfunctional behaviour are prevalent among home workers: the overflowing work model and the imploding one.

In this first scenario, work bursts its banks and floods the home. Uncontained by those spatial or physical or role borders that a formal division between home and work gives you, work totally dominates and other functions of the home become neglected.

‘Time becomes meaningless; deadlines swamp meal times, and even sleep…’

I have visited home workers where they have completely lost the plot and work has taken over in the most chaotic and intrusive way. Time becomes meaningless; deadlines swamp meal times, and even sleep.

The scenario of imploding work sees the opposite happening. In this model, work is dominated by the demands and distractions of home life, whether it’s the kids playing or neighbours dropping by or an elderly relative requiring care.

Motivation, planning and discipline diminish; workspace shrinks practically and psychologically until very little can be achieved. Some of the most fearsomely well-organised office operators simply hoist the white flag and surrender in the face of an unpredictable home life.

Nagging doubts

Even if your work neither overflows nor implodes, there are those nagging doubts about being off the corporate radar for promotion or training while you’re at home on the sofa with your iPad. Companies will really have to work hard in the post Covid-19 era to open up such opportunities to all hybrid workers, or those doubts will remain.

As for our growing reliance on an endless stream video calls, neuroscience research has been tells us loudly that digital communication through a screen can be a poor substitute for real human interaction. Which brings me to the second reason why we still need offices. We go there to make human contact.

When Frank Lloyd Wright sited his Larkin Office Building at Buffalo, New York, next to a commuter rail station for the first time in 1904, all conversation on the office floor was forbidden. Today, the rules have been relaxed to the point that conversation is the reason we are there. We don’t need to be present to access files or phone points or machines to type on (we can do all that remotely). We need to be present to belong.

Thirty years ago, there was an emphasis in offices on enabling people to get their head down and concentrate on their own private work. Today, the pendulum has swung decisively in favour of team collaboration and group dynamics. We know that in open plan spaces around the world, work has become a social activity and office designers are highly skilled in providing the settings and experiences to support that collaborative trend.

Best of both worlds?

Now, as companies contemplate a hybrid future, social dynamics are set to become more important than ever to making even a partial return to the office a success. Meanwhile, employers are trying to work out how to make the duffest bits of remote and flexible working easier for their people.

Employees want the best of both worlds. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index, a tracking study of 30,0000 workers, revealed that more than 70 per cent of want flexible work options to continue, while at the same time two-thirds are craving more in-person time with their teams.

In the short term at least, fixing the office environment for greater social amenity is likely to be quicker and easier to achieve than solving some of the intractable problems of remote working around culture and communication. Which is why the commuter flow into urban officeland – that black swarm of worker bees – isn’t going to disappear completely any time soon, even if it’s less intense than in the past.

Jeremy Myerson is a Director of WORKTECH Academy and Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art
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