It’s a scene stamped all over our popular culture – a line of commuters inexorably marching like drones towards the towering metropolis; a black swarm of worker bees descending on the hive. It’s a sequence captured in countless 20th- century films, from King Vidor’s unforgettable The Crowd (1928) to Billy Wilder’s workplace classic The Apartment (1960). And despite all those pronouncements about the end of the office, the death of distance and the rise of the corporate nomad, we remain addicted to office commuting more than we ever did before. Stand on London Bridge any weekday at 08.45 and the old worker bee film-reel rolls afresh.
But why, in an age of wireless cities and miniaturised technology, do we find it so hard to kick the commuter habit? The average worker in the UK commutes nearly 5,000km a year and large schemes for workplace towers and campuses are still being built all over the world. Why do we still need offices? Amid the welter of research studies that tell us different and sometimes contradictory things about changing patterns of work, two important and interconnected themes stand out. First, alternative forms of working, whether from home or in a series of third spaces, are a lot more difficult for the individual to manage successfully than the gurus of new ways of working ever let on. Second, the majority of us no longer go to the office just to work. We go there primarily to socialise with colleagues.
The modern office was originally planned and designed on factory lines to reinforce the machine-like certainties of management efficiency and productivity, but it has now become a social construct – a forum for face-to-face relationships. The worker hive has turned into a kind of social club. But it seems that few in business are willing to come straight out and admit it.
Let’s deal with the contradictions of working outside the office first. We were supposed to welcome a golden dawn of teleworking with the new millennium – but it hasn’t happened that way. Finance directors have encouraged partial home working to ease pressure on busy office floors and allow companies to reduce property costs by renting less space. Indeed, much of the new technology required to support and monitor people working flexibly off-site is now in place.
But the realities of working at home can be fraught. A freelance colleague once described his exhilaration at slipping the shackles of nine-to-five in this way: “Freedom to work unchartered hours, wear your favourite old T-shirt, listen to horrendous music on repeat, take unlimited coffee breaks and induce caffeine poisoning, and freedom from the twice-daily commute.” It all sounded ideal (apart from the caffeine poisoning, which you can get in the office anyway).
However, two models of dysfunctional behaviour are prevalent among home workers: the overflowing work model and the imploding one. In this first scenario, work bursts its banks and floods the home. Uncontained by those spatial or physical borders that a formal division between home and work gives you, work totally dominates and other functions of the home become neglected. I have visited home workers, especially those doing piecework tasks, where work has taken over completely in the most chaotic and intrusive way. Time becomes meaningless; deadlines swamp meal times and even sleep.
The scenario of imploding work sees the opposite happening. In this model, work is dominated by the demands and distractions of home life, whether it’s the kids playing, neighbours dropping by or an elderly relative requiring care. Motivation, planning and discipline diminish, while workspace shrinks practically and psychologically until very little can be achieved. I’ve seen some of the most fearsomely well-organised office operators simply hoist the white flag and surrender in the face of an unpredictable home life.
Even if your work neither overflows nor implodes, there are still those nagging worries about being off the corporate radar for promotion or training opportunities while you’re warming your slippered feet curled up on the sofa with your iPad (God forbid!). Out of sight can mean out of mind. Video-conferencing provides little consolation here and it often remains a poor substitute for real human interaction. Screens on smartphones or laptops are too small; telepresence suites are too large and too impersonal; genuine eye contact is very tricky.
When you’re working at home or down at the local Starbucks, you are entirely reliant on yourself. The rituals and prompts that office colleagues often provide are missing. Little wonder that when BlackBerry set design students at the Royal College of Art in London a project to explore technology for communities that needed help, one group created an online service for home workers called Boss On Demand (you select your manager type from Mrs Finger Snapper, who rudely interrupts your Facebook revelry, to Stoner Boss who makes your screen go fuzzy if you work too long).
When you’re labouring on a report at the kitchen table or in some godforsaken airport lounge, you’re not tuned in to the nuances of the latest office gossip either (group emails are no substitute for that good old-fashioned eavesdropping). Which brings me to the second reason why we still need offices. We go there to make human contact.
When Frank Lloyd Wright sited his Larkin Office Building at Buffalo, New York, next to a commuter rail station for the first time in 1904, all conversation on the office floor was forbidden. More than a century later, the rules have been relaxed to the point that conversation is the reason we are there. We don’t need to be present to access files or phone points or machines to type on (we can do all that off-site). We need to be present to belong.
Just 20 years ago, there was far greater emphasis on providing space and facilities for people to get their head down in the office and concentrate on their own work. Now the pendulum has swung towards team collaboration and group dynamics. In open-plan spaces around the world, work has become a social activity and office designers have been highly creative in providing the settings to make that happen, turning to historical architectural precedents to discover what works best for people and communication within tight-knit communities.
Nowadays there are elaborate office schemes based on everything from the layout of medieval squares and local high streets to fishing villages complete with harbour walls. Such an approach explains why Jane Jacobs’ pioneering urban planning text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was reprinted as a primer for office design.
Jacobs famously described the factors that made Greenwich Village in New York such a great place to live. And in more progressive companies, designers have started trying to make the office feel like a socially convivial slice of Greenwich Village. Not everyone can work in an inspiring workspace, but even more moderate office schemes can feel a whole lot better than social isolation at home with only the software-driven Mrs Finger Snapper for company. It seems the daily commuter flow into urban officeland – that black swarm of worker bees – isn’t going to reduce any time soon.