Is it time to end our love affair with the office?

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

It's now week 10 of 'lockdown'. Many of us are starting to ask the question 'what happens next?'

Like many of you, I've been working at home now for the last 10 weeks, as has my partner. As we've been careful to follow the rules, we've barely ventured out, bar trips to the supermarket for supplies, and I have been making good use of the freedom to exercise. In some respects, I have enjoyed the lack of pressure to travel for meetings and have enjoyed having my partner at home (he too is often away for work). At the same time, I have missed many things: gigs and dinners out, popping out for coffee chats, and (oddly enough) running up and down tube escalators (great exercise). And of course I have missed seeing friends and family.

What has struck me is how many people have managed to work, fairly successfully it would seem, from home during this period. Research suggests that during this lockdown, nearly half of the workforce has been working from home. I spoke to a client of mine yesterday, - one who it is fair to say has a long held aversion to home working - who said that to his surprise the transition from being in the office to the vast majority of staff working from home had worked well, and that there had been relatively few complaints from customers, indicating to him the despite the different and often challenging working arrangements, service had not suffered. Businesses across the land, and probably across the world, have observed something of a revelation: that people working from home can be as productive, as integrated, as motivated, as they would be if they were in the office. And what's more, there is evidence to suggest that for some, productivity and motivation has increased in a time when you could realistically expect it to decline.

Whilst this pandemic has brought pain and suffering to many, it has also highlighted the possibilities that might come with a paradigm shift. In Central London, the lack of traffic has resulted in a marked improvement in air quality. People have shifted down a gear, realising that they have been rushing mindlessly from one thing to another without ever questioning why the hurry. Families are spending more quality time together; it's a joy to see mums and dads out cycling in the mornings with their kids before work. In nearly 30 years of working and living in London, I have never seen anything quite like it.

So, I can't help but wonder what will happen next. In the rush to return to 'normal' will we all trudge back into the office, replicating the misery of the morning commute, the traffic jams, the overcrowding on the tube, the working long hours to 'look good', the sandwich stolen at the desk? Or will we learn from this and open up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is an other way.

I am under no illusion that working from home doesn't pose some challenges; it's not for everyone and I acknowledge that there are some jobs that simply cannot be done from home. Not everyone has the space or facilities for home working; there is the potential loss of serendipitous chats that lead to greater collaboration and the germination of ideas; it's can be harder to forge relationships over remote communication than meeting face to face; and people miss the camaraderie that comes with the office. I've heard a lot about the extroverts who are missing the energy they draw from others, and let's not forget that for many introverts, Zoom calls are a thing of horror as they often find it harder to join in and express themselves over such platforms.

But the reality is that our planet and our cities cannot cope with a paradigm that forces people to travel to a central location each day for what is, by and large, a matter of custom and practice. And in a post Covid 19 world, the reality is that the office will have to change; social distancing and the need to keep people safe from infection will demand that the office as we know it may, for some time, be off limits. It would make sense to argue that the work that can be done from home should be done from home. Let's face it, most meetings can be done via video call, although some clearly benefit from bringing people together in person. Reducing the time people spend together will reduce the amount of illness that is spread through work. The less time spent commuting will enable people to exercise or spend quality time with loved ones, enhancing well being. Not spending an hour each day at least squeezed into an overcrowded train or sat in a traffic jam will enhance wellbeing. Less time in the office will hopefully reduce the impact of 'presenteeism' where people turn up to be seen, even when ill, rather than staying away and keeping others free from infection. It will hopefully facilitate a greater shift towards 'measuring' productivity on the basis of output and quality, rather than simply being present.

Some of the pros of working at home - in particular the loss of spontaneous connection, the risks of being 'invisible' and thus overlooked - are real but with some thought and effort can be overcome.They are not impervious barriers. Let's not approach this with a binary 'one or other' perspective but let's use this time to think creativity about the kind of world we want to live in. And let's not be constrained by 'what we've always done' and miss the opportunity to create a better, healthier, more humane, kind, and productive world in which to live in and work.

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