August 7, 2020
Once upon a time. Not so long ago. We used to get ideas for stories on lots of different topics. These included those I often dismissed at the time as quaint, such as somebody’s thoughts on why you should bring your dog to work. Now I often hanker for such whimsy, faced with day 127 of an inbox stuffed with nothing much more than ‘how to return to the office after lockdown’.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why firms need to hold these conversations. They’re very important for the organisations involved and the people who work with them. I just don’t need to publish umpteen different daily iterations of it for six months. Other media outlets obviously might see these things differently.
So it’s now a relief whenever dogs get a look in, as they do in this piece by Arianne Cohen about what we’ll tell the mutts when we start going back to the office regularly. As she says, “dogs are becoming “overly bonded,” which means they’re intensely reliant on our presence to stay calm. Dogs signal this when they can no longer self-soothe and panic after an owner leaves a room or, God forbid, the house”. Or you could just look at their little faces.
It’s now become a cliché to suggest that we are in the midst of some great experiment, even though some people like to think we’re already at the end of it. But there have been signs over the last few weeks that we are synthesising something meaningful from the competing nonsense of the death of the office (and city) at one extreme and a mutant version of what once existed at the other.
Talking of which, a London property company is reported to be introducing 2,000 ‘cube offices’ at its development in Albert Dock. It’s been pointed out before that this kind of thinking is a misguided and desperate attempt to cling on to what once was.
Even WeWork, the pioneer of the phenomenon that for a time was the only thing giving an imitation of life to an already moribund commercial property sector, has moved on. It has introduced an on demand service and is openly targeting corporations looking for something a bit more 21st Century.
We’ve been highlighting for some time that the office based on footprint was giving way to one based on footfall, so it’s interesting to see how parts of the property sector are hanging on to the old thinking by sticking people in boxes. Sounds hellish. Together but alone.
The idea of packing people away from each other in a building is one that is picked apart by the always wonderful Kerstin Sailer in this piece in The Guardian.
“We should not give up on the idea of a shared workspace for everyone in the future. Not only is it impractical to suggest working from home as a standard response during a housing crisis, where many may lack the opportunity to set up a permanent and adequately equipped workstation. Being together and sharing experiences is fundamental for both individual and organisational health and wellbeing. In the long term, getting rid of the office completely may even harm an organisation’s bottom line, as good ideas dry up, onboarding of new staff becomes tricky and teams begin disintegrating. We can surely make it through more months or years until we have a Covid vaccine, but we should not sacrifice the idea that we will all meet again regularly in a space, a space that provides the best design possible for people to share a sense of togetherness and purpose.”
The benefits of working solely from home are based on a number of suppositions that do not apply to everybody
Neil Usher makes a similar appeal for something better to emerge from all of this in this short podcast. As does Christopher Mims in this piece in the Wall Street Journal, summarised on his Twitter feed for those without a subscription.
These nuanced and informed takes on what we should hope for in the future of work are a welcome shift away from the binaries that dominated the conversations in the early weeks of lockdown. There were moderate voices making better arguments, but they were inaudible in the din.
The underlying catalysts for this synthesis are a combined awareness of a number of underlying and longstanding issues in the case of experts like Kerstin and Neil, and also the more recent experiences people and business have had of working under lockdown for the first time.
As Kerstin points out in her piece, the benefits of working from home are based on a number of suppositions that do not apply to everybody, a point elaborated on by Sean Blanda here. And, as Stephen Bush highlights, this isn’t just about working from a bedroom or kitchen with inadequate equipment. We are still not prepared for the effects of the tech such as algorithmic line management and may never be.
Firms too are adopting a balanced perspective. Microsoft has discovered that digital first working has a significant impact on the hours people work and their ability to cope. Facebook has just taken out a major new lease in New York.
Neither of these two stories suggest that we should go back to the way things were. There were major issues with both working lives and the function of corporate real estate that we should take the chance to discard permanently. But there are also signs that we are more aware of the importance of place, structure and togetherness than we were when we could take them for granted. It’s not just dogs who need to be around their fellow creatures.
Image by steiningeraurora123
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.