Is the office as we know it dead?
Hindsight often accentuates the absurdity of the recent past with surgical precision. If you were to transport yourself back to even as recently as January of this year and talk about working from home you may have been greeted with scepticism and questions about productivity by your colleagues and peers.
Working from home had a stigma attached to it, that perhaps it was nothing more than a chance to relax at home whilst checking your emails twice throughout the day. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us no choice but to work from home if businesses want to maintain some level of operation and the results are promising.
The notion of needing an office up until a few months ago would have seemed ludicrous to question. Notwithstanding the distress and danger presented by pandemics, the periods of uncertainty they facilitate often necessitates the need for alternative thinking. It can be seen as an opportunity for reevaluation as this period begets the question: do we need offices?
In short, probably yes, but with far greater consideration of wellbeing and flexibility. This period offers the opportunity for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between work and leisure and how the removal of the office or a reduction in time spent there can catalyse this.
What is work and where should we do it?
Free-market liberalists may argue that there’s a mutually beneficial relationship created by work with income for labour. Whereas Karl Marx argued for the exploitative nature of employment, capitalists stealing the surplus value of labour; the crux of class struggle. The truth of the matter is there are far deeper meanings to employment and work life and perhaps not as intrinsic or dichotomous as the two schools of thoughts may conclude.
A formalised building in which work and business is undertaken has origins in the early 1700s with the birth of the British Empire, but the idea for a specific space for business to be handled has roots, like many things, in Ancient Rome.
We are seeing many of our global clients encouraging staff to work from home until 2021 to ensure the safety of employees amongst the landscape of COVID-19. It is also worth considering the success of these working from policies in the decision to extend this offer.
According to research completed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) , only 30% of the workforce worked from home at some point during 2019 and between January and December 2019, only 5.1% of the UK working population mainly worked from home.
What are the alternatives?
This era of flexible working we are navigating gives employers the chance to reinvent the ways in which they interact with the people in their teams and the relationships formed. These ways of working have existed for generations often without questioning whether these processes are actually productive and healthy.
This pandemic is a rare moment to sandbox a healthier and equally productive way to work. If productivity is up whilst at home, could employees work four day weeks, could the “20% Project”, championed by companies such as Google, be implemented in more businesses? Or perhaps a “Decompress Day” to plan their work for the month ahead, alongside preparing a meal, enjoying time in the garden, taking the family out or just hardcore gaming?
This pursuit of personal projects or options for flexibility and planning could offer a deeper level of stimulation and nourishment to employees and energise the workforce in an ambitious way, adding depth to the meaning of work.
The UK is fortunately placed to be able to meet with Asia in the morning and the United States in the afternoon, but the ability to have someone present in these places without the need for an official presence would be revolutionary. Could this be the moment clients get to hire some individuals in remote regions without having to worry about the expense and logistics of an office?
It will indefinitely open up the talent pool as this period has proven onboarding can be successfully done remotely. Professor Lynda Gratton argued “ [i]t seems that in the coming decade even people in the remotest parts of the world will be able to work on online global tasks and projects. ” This globalisation of the workforce offers employers access to far more employees than ever before as “ the state of your national economy will not necessarily affect your ability to find work, as the virtual market transcends national economies ”.
Many are gaining up to two hours a day each side of starting and finishing work without an arduous commute which completely alters the dynamic between work and leisure in a notable way. It also alters the perception of your own work. Many would spend the time commuting checking or answering emails extending their working day. Working from home perhaps offers the chance to positively affect the perception of the length of your working day.
Working from home also has the potential for a more human aspect to work. Video calls present a small window into someone else’s surroundings reminding us we all live our own intricate and multidimensional lives. This fleeting moment of humility might help people not feel like a disposable workforce. Economic journalist, Will Hutton, wrote in 2015 that “ long-term value creation can’t be done by treating your workforces as cattle ” – is this now the chance to change this?
Yet, there is always an equilibrium to be found. Video calls cannot supplement the beautiful serendipity of human interaction and the subtle minutiae of human behaviour that we subconsciously crave as social beings.
The office also provides an arena for collaboration and bouncing ideas off one another, therefore, the collegiate aspect of teams may suffer as employees are less likely to arrange a video call or pick up the phone to run a 5-minute idea by a colleague.
Working from home also presents the risk of overworking and struggling to separate work from leisure too as Zapier co-founder and CEO, Wade Foster, has remarked, “ I jump right into work when I’m ready. And leave when I’m done. There’s zero friction between working and not. ”
Yet, the sundering of working and not is important. A blurring of work and home life can be detrimental and for many and going into the office can be sanctuous, a welcome and blissful separation between all facets of life thus it is important that the option is not removed completely. It is surely a worthwhile endeavour to explore the options.
The big picture
Existential thought would encourage you to attribute your own meaning to life, it is your chance to put value on what is important to you, rather than seek guidance from institutions who are inherently made up of people just like you, destined to seek their own meaning. There is no set path to follow and a pandemic offers the greatest stage for change and alternative thought.
The Second World War led many to lean upon more existential thought, could this current crisis have the same impact? Mohamed El-Erian, former CEO of PIMCO opined that “ Hopefully, as companies give more attention to the importance of work-life balance, more and more people will be in a better position to decide and act more holistically on what’s important to them. ”
A reimagination of what was previously considered the norm has the ability to unlock productivity and performance in a refreshing way; an untethering from chains we probably did not even realise we wore. As history shows, generations have always attempted to find neoteric ways of working and the office and working from home finds itself the centre of this latest iteration.
There is not a clear answer and nor should there be, as the relationship between work and leisure is indicative to the individual, but there has been enough success thus far to warrant further exploration of the potential relationship between the two. It won’t work for everyone, but the best aspects of each will hopefully live on.