Would we mourn the death of the traditional office?

In a recent article, I explored ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic may accelerate the digital transformation of our economy and society. Among the likely outcomes of this crisis is an increase in remote and flexible working. Superfast broadband, portable devices, cloud computing and videoconferencing make working from home possible and convenient. Indeed, the crisis has demonstrated that working from home on a large scale is possible and can be done productively.

Clearly, the public health issues that we all face mean that, currently, it is sensible for us to work from home if we can do so, in accordance with government guidelines. It indeed seems likely that home working will continue in the medium term for many of us. For example, Internet giants Google and Facebook recently announced that they would allow their staff to work from home until 2021. Perhaps other firms will follow suit.

I look at my social media feeds, newspaper editorials and reflect on conversations with friends and colleagues, and it occurs to me that there is not a lot of love for the office. Months into ‘lockdown’, I see little demand from people wishing for a return to office life. The ‘progressive’ view is that we are experiencing a cultural shift that may see the demise of the traditional office. For instance, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that half of the social media giant’s staff may be working from home permanently by 2030. Commutes, office politics, and working with colleagues one doesn’t like, are frequently cited as reasons not to go back to what has become known as the ‘old normal’. Managers too may think there are opportunities to cut costs and liabilities and reduce dependence on physical space in favour of the virtual.

So, are we moving towards a utopia in which we can discard the bricks and mortar of our offices and work virtually from the comfort of our own homes, giving us more free time to spend with our families and to do the things we enjoy? I tend to disagree. Whilst there are benefits to flexible working, I think it would be a mistake to simply turn our backs on the tried and tested approach to working life. There are many advantages to the office, and we should also be alert to the wider impacts that such a profound change would have on our economy and society. These changes would affect individuals, organisations and our communities.

Let’s start with the impact on individuals. I am an introvert. When I entered the world of work, I would have liked nothing more than a job that would have allowed me to work from home. However, if I had, this would have been a mighty mistake and I would have been deprived of the many and varied experiences that have helped me grow as a person.

We learn and develop from our interactions with others. In several workplaces, I have had the benefit of learning from the mentorships, unlikely friendships and rivalries of the office environment. The workplace encourages diversity and collegiality. Even if it can be challenging or frustrating at times, the office forces us to see situations from other people’s perspectives. It allows us to share ideas and to re-evaluate our own assumptions. It permits us to hone our social skills and build confidence through conversations and meetings with colleagues and customers. Modern technology brings with it many benefits, but it also carries a risk of being used in such a way that we become more insular and isolated. Introverts, like myself, are at particular risk of finding this a little too comfortable!

Conversely, extroverts may find it difficult not to be around people and may miss being with their colleagues. A videoconferencing call is all well and good, but it remains somewhat artificial and does not replicate the spontaneity of face-to-face interactions. For some, videocalls are an unnatural and uncomfortable way of engaging with others. Having sat through countless videocalls over the past few months, I’ve noticed that certain people interact and behave very differently on a videocall than they do in a ‘real-life’ setting. The technologies are very helpful and a great way to communicate in lockdown but is it something that we’d want to do forever? They would certainly be useful in some circumstances, but I feel face-to-face interactions will always be preferable if it is convenient and cost-effective to do so.

Whilst some people are working productively from home, it’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Some prefer the structure of going into a workplace for set hours each working day. Not everyone is able to motivate themselves and many find it easier to focus in an office environment, with the company of their colleagues and the direction of their managers. The physical and psychological separation of the spheres of ‘home’ and ‘work’ is also important to many.

The home environment is not always conducive for work. Not every house or flat is suited for it. Some of us are lucky to have offices or studies, where we can enjoy audio-visual privacy at our desks and concentrate on work and calls, but it’s not the case for everyone. A makeshift workstation on a dining room table or sitting on the settee balancing a laptop and a smartphone might be fine for occasional periods of remote working but it is not a long-term solution. People’s domestic arrangements vary too. There is also a risk that home working can impact negatively on people’s work-life balance, with prolonged periods of working from home, putting a strain on relationships. There are distractions too, with children and pets demanding attention! We should also be mindful of those who live alone, who benefit from the social interaction and sense of belonging in the office. The loss of this routine risks increasing loneliness and mental ill health.

Offices are more than just workspaces. The office is an important physical symbol of organisational culture. Working in the same environment provides a shared experience for those employed within an organisation. The office is a physical space in which the values, identity and political dynamics of an organisation can be expressed and contested. It is also a space of collaboration, learning and socialisation. Fragmentation and disparate working may result in the weakening of these bonds and the challenging of established hierarchies. Corporate identities may well change as a result of increased remote working.  In some organisations, this could be a good thing, especially in unhealthy organisations where bullying and harassment are rife. However, in firms where there is a strong and healthy organisational culture, it could risk damaging the bonds between workers and the organisation that they work for.

Beyond the business and the individuals who work for them, office buildings also form part of our built heritage and our local economies. These buildings have stories and a heritage which helps reinforce community pride. Although some offices may be found on trading estates on the outskirts of towns, others are located within town centres. If large, prominent or historic premises were to close, we might not be able to find a new, sustainable end-use for them. Empty buildings, dereliction and anti-social behaviour may result, to the detriment of the urban environment. If offices began to close on a large scale, this would have a knock-on effect on other businesses too – for example, cafes, sandwich bars and other eateries may suffer from a drop in footfall.

We’ve seen the impact of social, cultural and technological change on local economies and communities before and we should perhaps be alert to the consequences. I am reminded of the chapels, public houses and workingmen’s clubs of my native south Wales, which closed their doors as a result of social, cultural and economic change throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, leaving behind empty buildings and diminished communities. Whilst wider social and economic trends were at play, it was also caused, in part, by people turning to new technologies such as the cinema, the television and the Internet for their entertainment at the expense of communal activities and interactions within traditional institutions. With the rise of individualism in the Western world, society and community bonds have arguably become weaker, as people have become more insular and less dependent on each other. Our technologies now allow us to work without having to go to a physical building. Could traditional offices too, and the sense of community and co-operation within them, be consigned to the history books?

Of course, for practical and operational reasons, not all offices can or will close. Many have an important customer-facing function. However, this is clearly not the case for all offices. A combination of socio-economic trends and shifts in behaviours and expectations, together with public health pressures and the availability of virtual solutions, will put pressure on businesses to evolve. This may well see downsizing of office buildings, perhaps some outright closures, and an increase in flexible working patterns.

Abandoning the office, in favour of the virtual, may sound attractive to some but be careful what you wish for!

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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