The COVID-19 pandemic has completely reframed how the world thinks about work, forcing millions of people to adapt to remote working models overnight. From just 5 to 15% pre-pandemic, around 50% of Americans were working from home as of April 2020.
While working remotely during lockdown has by no means been a universally positive experience, many have found it to be cheaper, greener and more productive. It has offered people direct experience of a more fluid, individual-centric way of working, closer to family and free of commuting.
As companies tentatively reopen offices around the world, many people are questioning how long the post-lockdown office revival will last – and if it’s even the right idea. With 54% of adults wanting to work remotely “most of the time” post-pandemic, companies are already questioning the future role of their offices, with some already downsizing space or creating fragmented suburban hubs.
So should we all just continue to work from home? Has the office become obsolete? Or do we actually need company office space more than we think?
Is the office still relevant?
The reason why most people work in offices is wonderfully simple: that’s the way it’s always been. Throughout the last century, people have collected in company offices to work because they had to. That’s where their tools were, and they needed access to computers, phones and fax machines. They went to the office because their boss said they had to and because that’s where their coworkers were. These were all good reasons to go to the office, of course – but the issue is, none of them are really relevant today.
Most of us already own the tools of our trade. We have laptops, phones, internet and cloud storage that allow us to work from anywhere. While some bosses may still prefer employees to be in the office, they’re wising up to the benefits of remote work, aware that the incoming workforce value freedom over anything else.
For future employees, being able to work flexibly isn’t a perk; it’s a requirement. Nor do we need to be in the office because that’s where our coworkers are. Now, companies work across multiple countries and time zones, hiring remote freelancers and contractors alongside permanent employees. The workforce has diversified and become global. People once went to the office to be seen (often leading to a presenteeism problem), but now all our work can be kept visible digitally.
All this would suggest that the office is indeed becoming outdated. While it may seem as though the pandemic is responsible for this new attitude, the wheels of workplace change have been in motion for a long time – it’s just that the pandemic has accelerated them. To borrow an analogy from the Harvard Business Review: “The pandemic has been a forcing function, making people look critically at their office bundle, like someone saying, ‘Why am I paying for those TV channels I never watch?’”
Compartmentalizing “work” and “rest”
It’s true that for knowledge work, physically being in an office probably isn’t necessary. But those who defend the office say that we shouldn’t go back because we have to – we should go back because we want to; because it’s actually what’s best for us. It’s true that many remote workers are more productive, happier, and enjoy their work more – but it’s equally true that people who work from home are more prone to stress, working longer hours, and experiencing work/life imbalance.
The reality is that working where you live (or living where you work, however you look at it) presents problems that don’t exist when you work from an office. The lines between our personal and professional lives become blurred, and it can become impossible to disconnect from our jobs. Commuting might be a pain, but when you leave the office and head home, you’re creating physical and psychological distance between your work and personal life. It’s a winding-down period, giving you space to transition out of “work mode”.
A company office itself creates a dedicated “home” for your work. There’s no need to clear the kitchen table at the end of the day – you can leave your professional mess, and keep your work equipment ready and set up for the next day. Aside from convenience, it also has an important performative function: we step into our office to start work, and step out of it to conclude it. It’s an idea Georgetown professor Cal Newport likes to call “grand gesture” – introducing a radical change into your environment can help increase the perceived importance of your work and help you commit to it. When we work in the same environment we live in, we risk missing out on that productive motivation.
Employee belonging, connection and agency
The benefits of working in an office run deeper than just helping to keep your work and home lives separate. Our jobs and our workplaces help define us, and when we have no workplace but our own home – no buffer between professional and personal – everything we do at work, every worry, every problem, becomes existential. An office is valuable because it can be an “identity workspace” – a place that doesn’t just define us, but shapes and develops us, bringing us closer to other people and ideas. As Harvard Business Review argues, identity workplaces “free, confine, mold, and repel us in various measures. It’s easy to lose ourselves when we don’t have a place… That’s why, when a place helps us be better or expand ourselves, we often remain committed to it.”
And yet, our identity is also tied into our connections with other people. Human beings are social animals, and we crave meaningful connection. Working alongside other people, in person, enables bonding on a much deeper level than virtual collaboration – and it’s no secret that remote workers form weaker relationships with their colleagues. When you work in an office, you enjoy a sense of community and a social aspect you just don’t get at home. Small interactions we have in the office go a long way in making us feel connected. It’s not about the small talk itself – it’s the fact that we have someone to talk to. Loneliness is one of the most common complaints among remote workers – and no amount of Slack chat or video calls can change that.
Offices also act as social levellers, allowing for a certain type of equity between employees, since everyone accesses the same equipment, internet connection quality, space, benefits, setup and comforts in the office (provided you aren’t part of a hierarchical, private-office culture). The building blocks and environment are the same for everyone; you’re all in the same boat, pulling together. But when you work from home, you’re in your own invisible bubble.
This separation also carries dangerous political implications for employee agency. When you can’t see your colleagues’ routines or be part of their daily experiences, you don’t know if everyone on your team is being treated the same. When you then don’t have the closeness of an in-person colleague relationship or safe collective spaces to discuss such topics, you are less able to address worker frustrations and collectively unite for improvements. Ultimately, working apart from your colleagues has huge potential to make employee union less tangible and dissipate the power of collective bargaining – both of which are critical for protecting employee rights and holding employers to account.
The future of the office
Despite the arguments above, the truth is that it may not be feasible or safe to return to the office for a long time. But the ramifications of this may be bigger than we think. In modern work culture, where belonging and meaning are so essential to employees, we may ask whether we can truly be part of a workplace when we have no physical place within it.
For many of us who were sent home when the pandemic hit, it wasn’t until we became full-time remote workers that we began to appreciate how small, often insignificant experiences of office life improved our overall happiness at work, as well as our commitment to our work. Being able to vent to a coworker, know what people are up to, chat over morning coffee and eat lunch together can be the difference between feeling like you truly belong within a work culture and feeling outside of it.