33. I miss my desk - Issue 134 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s a midweek meeting. Your boss’s face has frozen mid-instruction. Conversation is stilted. One colleague’s face has been substituted for a grey box that looks unbearably sinister. Your brain whirs as you try to keep up with the conversation while taking note of your colleagues’ living-room interiors. You are wearing a nice top and pyjama bottoms. It’s 14.00 and the longest commute you’ve taken today is a trip (OK, several trips) to the fridge.

Is this the future of work? Coronavirus has thrust upon us a series of real-life experiments that, you imagine, students will one day study in social-science classes. One of the most extreme has been the way that the lockdown has turned our homes into workspaces. With the vast majority of offices closed, it has forced us to consider whether we can do our jobs and run our businesses from our bedrooms.

The future of workplaces was a hot topic long before the pandemic. Over the past 15 years or so, technological advancements have enabled us to fire off emails from anywhere in the world and the gig economy has soared, creating a generation of freelancers who prefer café corners to office desks. In the US, the number of employees who regularly work from home jumped by 173 per cent between 2005 and 2018, while cities such as Amsterdam and Helsinki have cited spiking numbers of remote workers. “The office is dead!” has headlined many a sensationalist think-piece, peppered with gushing quotes about the joys of working in pyjamas. The relevance of this capitalist structure, which dates back to the 18th century, was questioned with increasing intensity.

But be careful what you wish for. The pandemic’s enforcement of remote working has highlighted that certain office attributes cannot be replaced by video calls and instant messaging. “I think that [the lockdown] will make the office more important than ever,” says Rahaf Harfoush, a Paris-based digital anthropologist and author who examines the impact of emerging technologies on society. “Being separated from each other has highlighted the specific values that physical proximity has on office culture, relationships and wellbeing. It’s very hard to replicate that digitally.”

In fact, one of the attractions of offices is that they boost workers’ wellbeing. We benefit from the routine – the need to be in a certain place at a certain time every day – and the socialising. Studies have linked working from home with mental-health issues: a 2019 global survey of 2,500 remote workers found that nearly half of them suffered from loneliness, a lack of motivation and the feeling that they couldn’t switch off from work.

That irritating colleague actually plays a special role in our social lives, according to Dr Alex Wood, a sociologist of work and employment at the University of Birmingham. “Psychological research shows that one of the positive things employment provides you with is interaction with people you wouldn’t normally interact with,” he says. “People might think that they hate their colleagues but if they lose their job, they miss socialising with people who aren’t friends or family.”

Offices bring other benefits to companies, such as enabling employers to monitor work and share knowledge. “The role of the office has changed: it’s no longer the place where you go to look at a screen;  you can do that anywhere,” says Markus Albers, a Berlin-based consultant and author. “It’s become a place for being creative together, socialising and forging a company culture.”

Even if we assume that, for most companies, the office isn’t going anywhere, it will certainly change. The lockdown could provide a chance to rethink what we want from our workplaces. What might an improved, post-pandemic office look like?

In recent years some offices have struggled to provide a productive work environment. Hot-desking and open-plan spaces have become hallmarks of young, progressive companies. At one point, such arrangements were heralded as the future. But visit them and you’ll find a sea of employees sporting noise-cancelling headphones in an effort to create individual bubbles of calm. “For a lot of those ‘best practices’ such as open-plan offices, the research now shows that they don’t really work,” says Harfoush. “You can’t do deep, creative work in a distracted environment when one colleague is beside you on the phone and another is eating.”

In the immediate future, physical distancing and hygiene measures will dictate office interiors, as desks are spaced out and communal areas viewed with caution. Some experts say that a fear of germs will have a lasting impact on future office design but Albers thinks that these concerns will eventually fade.

Even so, long-term changes that we’re likely to see in the name of productivity will promote some distancing between colleagues anyway. Open-plan floors will be chopped up into the cubicles and enclosed offices of the past; neatly segregated pockets of quiet are better for concentration. These will be complemented by meeting rooms and dedicated social areas that “look and feel even more like cafés and living-rooms [than they already do],” says Albers. We’ll be able to focus intensely when we need to work and to take a proper break when we need to rest.

Overall we’ll spend less time in the office than we did prior to the pandemic. During lockdown, employers and employees have realised that certain tasks can be done remotely and, to quote one viral meme, that some things “can be emails instead of meetings”. One UK survey, by Technology Connected, found that 65 per cent of businesses reported no drop in staff productivity during lockdown; some businesses suggest that workers are actually more productive. Employers’ concerns that their staff won’t complete work without strict supervision have been allayed, and most businesses now have rudimentary systems in place that will enable remote working to continue. With fewer folk in attendance at any one time, offices are likely to shrink in size and become concentrated in city centres, says Albers. “Huge office parks in the suburbs will fade away,” he adds. “Instead we’ll see more flagship-like offices in prime locations, for reasons of employer branding as well as customer retention.”

Most importantly in this new world order, employees will be able to toggle between working from the office and remotely based on where they can best get their day’s work done. Flexibility is king: research shows that having “variability” in our work environment helps to make our jobs more stimulating and increases productivity, says Dr Wood. That doesn’t mean following a company schedule where, say, every Friday means working from home; it should be adaptable. Harfoush offers an example. “You might have a week where you want to research quietly by yourself in your apartment,” she says. “Then the next week you want to chat about ideas in the office with colleagues. Why can’t you do both?”

The lockdown hasn’t provided an accurate reflection of what remote working would look like if implemented thoughtfully. Parents are juggling meetings with home-schooling; anxiety surrounding health and job security is sky-high; and companies have had to cobble together ad hoc digital arrangements. Going forwards, Harfoush suggests that firms should put clear digital guidelines in place for employees to follow, spelling out expected response times to emails and contactable hours, and creating procedures for reaching people in emergencies. 

Broadly speaking, this experience has shown us what we can achieve from our homes as well as what we need from our offices. It’s given us an idea of the environments in which we can thrive. Hopefully, it’s also made us miss our colleagues. Perhaps we’ll never complain about those early morning commutes again. 

Monocle comment: Offices aren’t going anywhere but if we adapt them to make the most of modern ways of working, our businesses could become more productive.

About the author: Waters is monocle’s fashion editor. He is looking forward to getting back to the London office after sharing his living-room desk with three housemates.

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