Why we need the office, and why you might not realise it.
I have just spent a full week at the office and I cannot tell you how great I feel. The last few months have of course had their delights and I’ve learnt lots in the search for the ephemeral work/like balance; but as I reflect, I realise I have really struggled. I have found it really hard. I have just finished reading Johan Hari’s brilliant book on depression, Lost Connections, (I encourage you to read it) and the symptoms it describes feel very personal to me. He talks powerfully about the body of evidence that depression stems from disconnection (not least people, values and meaningful work).
In a weird way I have felt guilty for how I feel. I am really fortunate. At 28, babies are a little way off, so I have no childcare juggling. I rent a flat with a garden. I lived with a very close friend throughout proper lockdown. I have a very close circle of friends and family who have been brilliant. I am in good health, some savings in the bank and all the privileges afforded to me as a young white man. I have great colleagues. The sun has been shining. I’m good by myself. I delight in hearing others tell me how for the first time in years they’ve heard the birds sing, seen the flowers bloom and they have more time with their children.
But the last few months I have been starved of my intrinsic motivation. I’ve disconnected from my peers. I have generally been unproductive. I’ve been downbeat and probably not that fun to work with. Perhaps I also feel guilty because the emerging narrative around me is one of a WFH panacea. I’ve found WFH to be pants.
I am really worried that the debate about the future of work is too one-sided. And I want to offer some perspectives that I’m not hearing discussed loudly enough. I worry that those with a platform and those who lead their businesses are those that most often benefit from a WFH culture. I encourage you to think very carefully that those who may need the office the most might not feel confident to speak up for it.
We talk about getting a ‘sense’ that someone isn’t quite themselves ... we are depriving ourselves of those senses
The first is about caring. How can we properly care for each other remotely?
How do we know to be there as a friend or a mentor?
We talk about getting a ‘sense’ that someone isn’t quite themselves or is a little quieter than usual. Without time spent together we are depriving ourselves of those senses. I do not think it is sufficient to ‘check in’ or rely on structured time together, as it is often only when we are not looking that we see.
To many, work is a sanctuary, a safe space even, a place to escape the stresses at home. Where do we escape to when the office is not there?
I use these words tentatively as along with describing us all as ‘social creatures’, I feel they have become overused.
To me, what it means is that we fundamentally need to be connected to other people. It is in our biology. We prospered as a species because of our ability to form tribes and communities and without them we suffer. We can of course augment that experience with technology, but we cannot replace it. We have simply not evolved far enough.
What is harder to replace with technology are in fact our weak ties. Working from home severs many of our weak social ties which are just as important as our deep ones for our wellbeing. These may be the familiar faces on the commute, our colleagues whose names we forget, the receptionists at new offices, the baristas or the landlady at the local. They are by definition the people you would never plan to see.
And what of gossip. Gossiping is one of our oldest and most important social tools. As Harari eloquently puts it in Sapiens - “It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.”
How do I air my frustrations, my insecurities? How does company culture permeate? How do I make up for a lack of internal communication? How do I work out what other people are up to? We need to come together to gossip or we will all go crazy.
Many of the benefits of working from home stem from this same need for human connection. More time spent with family and in pursuit of things we enjoy and share with others. But we should remember that many us do not share a home with loved ones. We must think about loneliness now more than ever. We are all at different stages of our lives.
Our homes are not designed as offices and very few of us have the space to create a comfortable healthy workspace, let alone a separated workspace.
We invest in ergonomic desks, chairs and lighting in our offices for our physical health. We create diversity of spaces for breakout and Silicon Valley style ‘collisions’. Yet we seem comfortable with asking people to work from a cramped desk in the corner of their bedroom. Very few of us have the space to recreate the office.
And what about all of the office perks: tea, coffee, fresh fruit, leftover sandwiches; to name the trivial? All I have now is a bigger electricity bill.
Let us all live through an English winter before we jump to too many conclusions about the pleasure of working from home.
I am easily distracted preventing me from achieving flow. Days bleed one into the other and I find myself less and less motivated.
Offices enforce separation and perhaps we don’t realise how helpful that is.
We fight hard to prevent technology’s erosion of work and home so I am quite surprised at the apparent enthusiasm to completely do away with any separation at all.
For lots of us, the WFH productivity thing is a myth. Without a physical start and finish to my day, my days at home never really get started and never really get finished. I have no urgency and I am easily distracted preventing me from achieving flow. Days bleed one into the other and I find myself less and less motivated – a vicious circle. I can switch off. For those who can’t, this has meant 16 hour workdays, day after day. Most people don’t have the self-discipline to enforce a routine, nor the space to create physical separation and I don’t think we should suddenly expect them to.
Just as we need shadow to enjoy light, I strongly believe we need to contrast home with work to enjoy both. So how do we keep work and life separate, if they are no longer physically separate? How do we enjoy our homes as homes, if they have become offices?
The physical co-location of people in an office facilitates all of our unstructured learning. A bigger problem for those at the start of their careers, but the learning is two-way.
How do I eavesdrop on telephone calls? Will I really proactively schedule all that unstructured time spent together – travel to meetings, walking to the shop, waiting for meetings to start, grabbing someone because they walk past you? How do I get asked to do something that’s not really my job because I just happen to be the closest person nearby?
When we can physically see someone, we know when it’s okay to disturb them. It’s called the hover and pounce manoeuvre and it is the first thing you learn (by watching others) when you start in an office. The instant message is rarely responded to instantly. Will you really pick up the phone to ask? Do you know whether you are disturbing them at work or mid-childcare?
Even if some of us are more productive at completing our ‘work’, are we missing what it means to be productive? And let’s not kid ourselves, for all that is so brilliant, the technology (and the internet connection) still leave us wanting.
I look forward to the actual data to come out of this Great Experiment. So far it is mixed. But even if task driven output improves, I think that misses the point in an increasingly knowledge-driven and creative economy. And how good will the data be? Who likes to admit they’ve been underperforming?
How do we spontaneously solve problems together, rather than working in silos? How do we disseminate knowledge to each other when it doesn’t warrant a meeting? Collaborative tools are good to a point, but how do we sit together with a printout or a whiteboard?
How do we recreate serendipity upon which business relies – the chance meeting at Pret, the small talk after a meeting?
Why do all the tech companies, proponents of the digital revolution and optimisation, build such enormous HQs to foster collaboration and connectivity?
IRL (in real life) meetings. (Gosh I miss you, old friend. I will never speak a bad word of you again). How do we create the space for these to happen? What of the guilt when you know someone may have to come in just for that meeting? Do you joke and give banter over zoom? Why are they so tiring?
And networking. It’s hard enough as it is. How little networking would we do if we all worked from home forever?
My worry is that those at the top benefit most from working from home yet the people who need it the most may be least able to speak up for it.
You may or may not agree with me. You may be hearing a different story. I want to offer some suggestions as to why you may not hear the full story. My worry is that those at the top benefit most from working from home yet the people who need it the most may be least able to speak up for it.
We struggle to talk about mental health at the best of times. Will colleagues feel confident to be honest about how remote working is affecting them emotionally? Are they prepared to be vulnerable?
How confident do your more junior colleagues feel taking a stance in opposition to more senior people in the business?
Has the idea that preferring (or needing) to work from the office become a sign of weakness or a lack of self-discipline or motivation – traits that we regard highly in today’s individualistic society? What role is Big Tech and our individualist culture playing in shaping the narrative that we should embrace the joys of remote working?
You may argue that many of these things can be resolved by adapting to a new way of working. I don’t disagree. But don’t underestimate the extent of the training and investment that it would involve. But more importantly, I worry that the lack of human connection risks creating a long term impact our mental wellbeing.
I am not advocating a return to 9 to 5. I remain a champion of a flexible approach to working and a healthy balance. There is much to be gained from working from out of the office and the enormous power of technology to do good. But I think that the office is part of the backbone of our society.
I do believe that a flexible model of home and work is where we should settle, and I think that presents amazing opportunities for productivity, culture and enjoyment of life. But I think that it is critical that there are expectations set about spending sufficient time in the office and guaranteeing that a healthy cross section of the company are there together.
And it is important not to underestimate the investment needed to facilitate a change to our working habits; both in ensuring our homes are optimised for working and that the tools that can facilitate a more flexible approach are understood and adopted effectively.