News from the front desk, Issue 526: In a 1972 lecture, British writer and alternative thinker Alan Watts suggested that with the boundless capabilities of a telephone, office workers in most professions would no longer need to physically travel to work.
“Everyday in the urban areas, millions of people are absolutely wearing themselves out,” Watts said, “tearing their nerves to distraction by going along the freeways in a car, fouling the atmosphere, to do their work.”
“In most kinds of business… you don’t need an office if you’ve got a telephone. The telephone company can show you how to anything in the world you want to do by way of business by phone so that you can cut down the enormous amount of time wasted in rushing around commuting. You can stay at home and do your work from there.”
It’s been close to 50 years since Watts noticed something was up with business as usual, and he likely wasn’t the first to do so.
So maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised when, given a taste of working from home, most people have seemed to prefer it, and continue to do so when the threat of pandemic is no longer an immediate concern.
It should be said that we are talking about a specific employment type here. Those jobs which can, at least in principle, be done either remotely or in an office. There are perhaps just as many jobs that entail being physically present, what during the pandemic may have been termed an essential worker like teachers, doctors and train drivers.
Not least deserving of mention are supermarket workers who endured our bizarre and insatiable desire for more and more toilet paper and panic-buying of bulk pasta, and did so with grace.
But for our purpose we are talking about the mouse-pushers like myself who spend our days staring into a screen in the relative comfort, or more accurately discomfort, of an office chair.
Is the office dead?
Safe to say if many office managers had their way, once the threat of pandemic had blown over the working droves would be safely back in their box five days a week.
But that is not what we are seeing. Many companies are offering their employees the choice of splitting work time between home and the office, and some are giving up the office altogether.
It may seem that the office is dead. An outdated relic of a period in human history we look back on like we do the 19th century practice of sending men down mines to give their lives for the company’s profit.
Perhaps not. It seems that for all the enthusiasm for working from home there remains an undeniable list of factors suggesting that the office, or something resembling that model, should remain.
From those looking to escape homes filled with pets or children, to others who enjoy the sociability of seeing workmates everyday. Friendships and romances forged at work are often some of the closest relationships we have.
“When you look at the lockdown and post lockdown surveys, we’re all complaining about the lack of ability to actually interact with colleagues and the lack of collaborative opportunities or serendipity,” said associate professor Christhina Candido, Director of SHE Lab (Sustainable and Healthy Environments) at the University of Melbourne.
On a practical level, collaboration flows more readily in person, via chance encounters at the water cooler or during shared coffee breaks. Junior employees need to learn from somebody and there is a tacit imparting of knowledge that occurs in the workplace which simply cannot be achieved at a distance.
None of this means that companies can lapse lazily back into their old ways. A change is in the air that everyone from the lowly employees to the top office brass are having to deal with.
And the change is quickly becoming an imperative. If companies want to attract the best talent, they will have to compete not just on salary and benefits, but flexibility as well.
It also means creating a workspace that is more productive, comfortable, social, equitable, enjoyable and so on, than home, which may not be as simple as a new foosball table and coffee machine.
The dreaded commute
It’s all well and good to create an office that better suits the needs of employees, but if they have a nightmare of a time getting there, the old kitchen bench as a workspace starts to look pretty good again.
Taking an hour or two commute out of every day gives back a lot of time to workers, which by all accounts people are relishing by walking the dog, playing with kids, preparing a casserole for dinner or simply setting the alarm clock back a few snooze cycles every morning.
Talk of decentralising offices abounds, creating regional hubs to cut down on commute times (and emissions) and offer workers the best of both worlds — a sleep in and the ability to collaborate with their immediate coworkers in person. Of course this would require a major shake up. Are we ready?
If one thing is clear about the future of how we work, it is that nothing is clear. Which is why we are bringing you the expert insight of those at the metaphorical coal face during this tumultuous time in the history of how we work.
What do the experts say?
In crafting our event, Back to My Happy Healthy Workplace, which we are excited to present next week, we have been lucky enough to speak to a plethora of leading edge thinkers on this issue.
Among them was Chris Alcock, principal consultant at Dexus subsidiary, Six Ideas. Alcock makes his living out of strategising to optimise offices and even he says that the path ahead is far from certain.
“We’re still trying to adjust from a time when everything about the office is taken for granted, it was a default that going to work meant going to the office,” Alcock said.
“When the office is no longer the default for work, there are so many variables to consider it’s almost ridiculous.”
Within this context, leader of strategy and research at Bates Smart, Laurie Aznavoorian is in the difficult position of having to design the offices of the future today.
“We’re creating and building workplaces right now. And trying to embed in them an inner flexibility so they can have that ability to evolve,” Aznavoorian said.
Along with her colleague at Bates Smart Kellie Payne, who is director and leader of workplace strategy and will be a panelist at our event, Aznavoorian has been delving into what offices mean to us on a psychological level.
“Places mean a lot more to us as human beings than just the place where we go do our work. They connect to our identity, they connect to our sense of belonging and our values and kind of the way that we define ourselves,” Aznavoorian said.
“There are people that are coming to the office, because it’s important to them. And then there are people that are coming to the office because they live with five other people and seven dogs.”
Five other people and seven dogs
One of the lesser considered, but no less important factors in how we work is the issue of equity.
There is a big difference between the executive working in her private home office with posturepedic chair, and the share house warrior whose bed serves as a workspace, conference room and lunch table.
Director of workplace equity and belonging at consulting firm ERA-co, Claudia Barriga-Larriviere said she is deeply concerned about the disconnect between those who make the final decision regarding work habits, and the people those decisions affect.
“The thing that keeps me awake at night is the idea that the people making a lot of these decisions are the least equipped to make them. Because they are making the decisions from a beach house somewhere they escaped to during the pandemic,” Barriga-Larriviere said.
There is a world of difference in the way different people have experienced work during the pandemic lockdown, and these differences existed long before COVID-19.
Director of HOK’s global WorkPlace practice, Kay Sargent pointed out to us last week that with the growing acceptance of neurodiversity in the community comes the opportunity to appreciate those differences in the workplace as well.
See Poppy’s fantastic article for more.
Workers’ needs should be catered for, not just out of kindness, but with respect to talent retention, productivity, and ultimately the bottom line.
Without the ability to see what is going on beneath the surface of their employees, this requires companies to take the radical step of asking workers what works best and planning to accommodate a diverse range of needs as much as possible.
“If we open the pipeline to all of these people, what type of office would you need? What is the breadth of services and amenities?” Barriga-Larriviere said
“But also, what is a kindest way of working through the change management of it so that you’re not accounting for what you imagine your typical worker is, but actually giving people options to make decisions for themselves.”
Not all companies will take this approach, and some will be more successful than others, but as working culture shifts, employees may begin to vote with their feet and favour employers willing to work with them in return.
As Chris Alcock said, “the reality is that people’s willingness or reluctance to come back into the office is a really, really good indicator of the strength of the culture of the organisation.”
Pretty damning stuff. No wonder leadership is getting nervous.
We look forward to exploring all these ideas and more next Tuesday at our event and hope to see many of you there. Happy Friday!
Thanks to our supporting sponsors, CitySwitch, Floth and International WELL Building Standards, and to advertising sponsor CETC