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29 Jul. 2020 | Comments (0)

Doesn’t that sound quaint now? Just going to pop into the office. It begs the really interesting question of why?

We are in the midst of a massive unplanned experiment in working practices – and the longer this “experiment” goes on, the less likely many people will want to go back to the office. One thing of which I am sure is that for lots of knowledge workers “going to the office” will no longer be their default position.  On a recent webinar poll of over 600 people - over 20% didn’t want to go back to the office. In purely economic terms that 120 desks or seats - potentially no longer needed together with a lot of surplus office space. 

It seems that no one asking the obvious question – certainly not out loud. Why would we be going into an office? Why would we need to meet physically?

I don’t want to initiate a debate on the pros and cons of remote working. I have been fortunate to work in some simply stunning offices around the world in New York and Singapore and Beijing and Shanghai and Los Angeles and Moscow and London. Nor do I want to speculate about what the office of the future might look like. I do specifically want to address the question of “Why do I need to go into the office?”

But why did our ancestors gather in groups? They gathered to protect the group from risks, like a saber-toothed tiger; or to share resources where collaborative effort was needed – to hunt a mammoth or maybe to gather nuts and berries from a large tract of land. In essence to tackle tasks that were too big to be done solo. They also gathered for specific things - for rituals and to celebrate. So, why do we, in the Anthropocene age, need to gather in groups? 

Klaus Schwab has written extensively on the 4th Industrial revolution and arguably the current pandemic has accelerated the onset of this new world. Using the idea of the  Industrial Revolution is a good place to start.  In early village life probably the only places where you didn’t work from home were the local flour mill or the blacksmith. And even then the Miller – and the Smith probably lived in or above the premises. They both needed machinery to do their work. The cloth was spun at home. Baking was done at home etc. Life was home-based as was toil. Pre the industrial revolution people, in the main, worked the land and went home.

In our current model of bringing people together to do “work” in offices, we can draw a straight line from the “manufactory” to the modern office. But knowledge workers are now using intellectual capital, not massive machines or production lines. So why bring people together into an office? Does it make sense to bring people together to use machinery in the knowledge age when we actually have, arguably, the most powerful machines imaginable – in our HOMES!

As part of our coming together as social beings, we have, for a long time, used social groups to mark significant things. To celebrate times of significance – the solstice, the changes of the seasons. We have rituals to mark births, marriages, and deaths – or in our modern parlance new joiners arriving, promotions, and goodbyes for people leaving for pastures new.  All have attendant ceremonial, celebratory, ritualistic, and symbolic significance for us as humans. It is also likely that skills, like flint napping, how to hunt together and communicate were learned in social settings. We know that virtual working is raising questions in some sectors of our modern world about how we develop the subtle social and other skills that we seem to acquire by osmosis. Can we still learn as well when we are distant and relying on virtual technology?

So, let me revert back to my original question. Why should we bring people back into the office? I am sure lots of smart people will be working up protocols and reasons to come into the office in the coming weeks and months. And now would be a good time to revisit the old maxim from the world of strategy that “form should follow function”. Perhaps the questions we should be asking are:

  • What are the real reasons we need people to travel to the office in order to meet in groups?
  • What are we seeking to achieve in the office – that we can’t achieve virtually?
  • What are the best ways of enabling those in our offices and workplaces to be even more purposeful and productive than they might have been otherwise?

For me, I sincerely hope that part of the answer will simply be because it is fun to be hanging out and doing stuff together with colleagues.

*Quoted in “The Ecological Vision: Reflections on the American Condition” by Peter F Drucker

  • About the Author:Mike Mister

    Mike Mister

    Mike Mister is a Senior Fellow in the Human Capital Practice of The Conference Board’s and an Associate with the Møller Institute, Churchill College in the University of Cambridge, UK.&nb…

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