February 8, 2022
The distillation of every received and laundered idea of the past two years leads us here. A claim from Gallup that in future just over a third of the desks in offices will be empty. Whatever Gallup thinks, this is great news for the office sector. One of the truths the office sector hasn’t always liked to talk about too much over the last few decades is that in a typical office over that period, around half of the desks have already been empty.
The idea of the half empty office is a now widely accepted cliché based on a set of familiar faulty presuppositions. It is regurgitated here by The Law Society Gazette, in a piece claiming that half of desks in law forms in future will be unoccupied in the ‘return to work’. From a historical perspective this doesn’t mean what the headline writers think. In that context, it means no change.
Except of course there is going to be a huge amount of change. Everybody who can be affected by changing attitudes to work and workplaces will be affected by them.
And not always in predictable or expected ways. The idea that those changes affect different groups of people in a variety of ways is already something of a cliché in itself. But it bears repeating. As Mother Pukka founder and flexible working advocate Anna Whitehouse points out here, we seem to be fixated on working from home rather than talking about flexibility and women may come out worse off as a result.
Not only do managers not know how their organisations work in every detail, they cannot know
The great workplace conversation needs to move beyond assumptions and clichés now. Perhaps the most important idea we should discard is that we are primarily switching out one place of work for another and that other changes in the way people collaborate and relate to each other and the organisation can be replicated or improved upon just by managing them.
If this were true, it would rest on an assumption that managers know how their organisations function. As a recent piece of research in the Harvard Business Review suggests, this simply isn’t true. “Top-down goals are set without the facts being known,” the authors write. “And teams have little choice but to sign up for plans without understanding their implications, leading to immense pressure on teams.”
This research is about a discrete work process, so is at least finite and knowable. Other factors beyond the ken of managers include human behaviour and so are often unknowable and even more often unpredictable. Not only do managers not know how their organisations work in every detail, they cannot know.
It is just as likely that this will lead to serendipitous discoveries about the way we work with each other in new work structures as it will reveal problems with them.
But first, we need to ditch the clichés and received wisdom. We need to embrace the idea that this is about culture and time as much as it is about place. We need to retain an open mind and open up the discussions about the workplace to embrace magisteria beyond the closed arguments about productivity, cost and even creativity.
The case for proximity and togetherness is more likely to be found in the fields of anthropology and psychology than in balance sheets and to-do lists. Perhaps even the arts and philosophy. It’s easy enough to punch holes in the ahistorical pronouncements of organisations like Gallup. But if the office sector wants to make its case, it will have to fight on more solid ground than it currently is.
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.