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How will working from home change office culture and is there a future for the office at all?

Will The Rise of Home Working Make the Office Obsolete?

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Home Working – The New Frontier

Beneath those corridors of shining tiles were rooms, tier below tier, reaching far into the earth, and in each room there sat a human being, eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas.

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The above quote is from a little-known, yet stunningly-prescient short story, penned in 1909 by the British author, E.M Forster, entitled ‘The Machine Stops.’ In it, the writer describes a world run by an omniscient machine, a world in which people live alone in single rooms, their every need catered to, their every whim indulged. In the world of this story, there is no need to physically see other people, there is no need to leave your own space and there is an absolute shunning of ‘the terrors of direct experience.’

As the world grapples with the current crisis, there is an experiment in home working being undertaken on a massive scale. Not to the extent of Forster’s dystopian fable but an interesting one nonetheless. An experiment that could change how we work forever. As millions of us begin to work from home, the question being asked by workers across the globe is:

Has the office become obsolete?

The decline of the office as the centre of work life has been heralded for years. In this piece, written back in 2016, on Forbes website, the writer argues that ‘modern office culture is terrible’ and that advances in technology and communication would mean that a significant portion of the working population would begin home working.

This eschewing of the 9-5, suit-and-tie lifestyle has already been adopted by a large proportion of the tech industry and the new generation of millenials embrace the freedom of home working. And this article wasn’t alone. The decline in office culture has been a topic of debate across industries and professions, with many people stating that their job simply couldn’t be done from home. But the recent pandemic, and the rules around social distancing have shown, rather starkly, that a lot of these jobs can, indeed, be done remotely. So what does that mean for the future of the office?

Images such as these show just how the "traditional" office has changed in recent decades. The emphasis on making the office space comfortable has taken it closer to what would be considered a living room than the cubicle layouts synonymous with office culture.
Images such as these show just how the “traditional” office has changed in recent decades. The emphasis on making the office space comfortable has taken it closer to what would be considered a living room than the cubicle layouts synonymous with office culture.

The History of The Office

The history of the office is debated by historians, with some saying it is a relatively modern phenomenon and others stating that it has its roots in ancient cultures. Most agree that the office as we know it now, grew alongside the Industrial Revolution, with organisations forming headquarters, as a centralised place to make decisions and develop bureaucratic procedures. The office served as a focal point for companies, like the nucleus of an atom around which the national, or even global, operations could orbit.

Why Do We Still Have Offices?

So, you might ask why, in this day and age, when so much of what we do is digital, when so many people are making the move to home working, do we still have offices? Surely they are superfluous relics that we needlessly cling to. But this isn’t the whole story. There are arguments on both sides.

Productivity

An argument commonly touted by those who oppose home working is that people are not as productive at home as they are at the office. Some believe that if a person works from home, they will ‘slack off’ and would need constant monitoring by managers.

There have been several studies that suggest the opposite is true. A study, published by Stanford University, followed a single company’s move towards a work from home model. The researchers found that people were more productive when home working and that employee attrition rates in the company much were lower, as well as time taken off for sick days. They also took fewer breaks. Other studies also suggest that people who work from home tend to work longer hours and are therefore more productive.

However, this might not lead to a more even work-life balance, with 29% of respondents to one survey stating that they had a hard time maintaining a healthy equilibrium between their personal and professional lives when home working and 54% saying that they felt stressed at work. These numbers were higher than their office-working counterparts.

Collaboration

With all of the advances in technology and the rapid development of technology, we have a plethora of ways to interact and collaborate with our colleagues. Video conferencing apps, allow us to speak with our co-workers across the world, in large groups, sharing information and keeping relevant documents updated in real-time. This kind of collaboration is not limited to a singular location but can transcend the spatial confines of an office.

On the flip-side, some would argue that face-to-face communication still surpasses teleconferencing. There are no delays, no bandwidth issues, no pets or children crashing meetings. None of the day-to-day perils of home working. There is real, human connection in a shared space.

And that brings us to the crux of the argument. Technological advancements will, no doubt bring about radical changes in working culture. We have seen this on a mass-scale in the previous months and will no doubt see it progress by leaps and bounds. But perhaps the reason the office persists is because it gives us purpose, a shared place, a common identity.

Perhaps the future is a hybrid of the two. All of the cutting-edge innovations and benefits of home working, with all of the strength, inspiration and comfort of human connection we can find in the very best offices. Perhaps, as one of the characters in Forster’s story of disconnection and isolation says, in a moment of longing, a moment of reaching out to another person: “Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”

Alexis Boddy is a London-based writer, specialising in technology and business. She has also written for the stage and her fiction has been published around the world.

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