The office once felt an inextricable part of the modern urban landscape. Buildings such as the Gherkin, Chrysler Building and Fox Plaza are declarations of the ascendancy of white-collar work: monuments to administrators, clerks and coders, written in glass and steel and concrete and brimming with wheely chairs.
Yet as the coronavirus pandemic has dislodged workers, tech evangelists have proposed that they can slip the surly bonds of their desks permanently. The purpose-built office — an invention of the mercantile ventures of the 18th century — is outmoded, they argue. In an era of video-calling, team instant-messaging and shared documents, there is no need to be in the same city, country or even timezone to collaborate with colleagues. But it would be a mistake to treat the future of the office as a binary choice. Employers should take the time to consider how best these buildings can serve their businesses.
There are obvious benefits for employers and employees alike in the idea of a fully virtual office. Grandiose headquarters in capital cities may be a symbol of success, but ditching them allows companies to cut costs and hassle. Given that the infrastructure for working remotely is standard today, there are few extra overheads. Many workers may also celebrate an end to commuting and the pungent desktop lunches of distracting colleagues.
But the surging demand for co-working in recent years — and the ubiquity of white-collar workers in coffee shops before that — shows that physical space has qualities which the digital lacks. Even for office workers in industries such as consultancy, which can be performed predominantly over the internet, it is popular to have a location in which to meet clients and share ideas. And as many of us who are forced to work from home have recently discovered, the human touch cannot be fully replicated through video calls.
There is a social dimension, too. Physical proximity to co-workers and management is important for generating a sense of community. Private sector companies have often acted as de facto hubs for information and advice to employees. In retrospect, as coronavirus has spread, their responses may be judged to have helped reduce the impact of the disease. And moving entirely online risks inadvertently cutting off one avenue of innovation: surreptitious meetings and conversations, whether around literal water coolers, in break rooms or at colleagues’ desks.
Rather than treating offices as they were in the Enlightenment — spaces in which workers were bound by the constraints of their work — employers would be best served thinking how to improve these spaces.
Tech-utopians have predicted the internet would liberate office workers from their glass and concrete cells for years. With more than a little irony, the biggest tech companies have taken a very different course themselves. The “campuses” of Silicon Valley behemoths are perhaps the best example of how to make an office appealing. On social media, tech workers have recently bemoaned the loss of access to perks such as good coffee, free food and on-site gyms. Making offices into spaces where employees want to be is not frivolous but an increasingly important part of corporate culture.
Many more established companies have failed to make their workplaces as engaging as they might. But they would also balk at the revolutionary idea of dropping their offices entirely. Right enough. However good the technology gets, today’s enforced homeworking experiment looks set to prove the enduring appeal of a good office.
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