• Dave Frost

The death of the office...

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Even before coronavirus struck, the reign of the office on our lives had started to look a little shaky. A combination of rising rents, the digital revolution and increased demands for flexible working meant its population was slowly emigrating to different milieux. Almost half of the workforce already worked remotely, at least some of the time. Across the world, home working had been rising steadily for a decade. Pundits predicted that it would increase further. No one imagined that a dramatic spike would come so soon. It’s too early to say whether the office is done for. As with any sudden loss, many of us find our judgment blurred by conflicting emotions. Relief at freedom from the daily commute and pleasure at turning one’s back on what Philip Larkin called “the toad work” are tinged with regret and nostalgia, as we prepare for another shapeless day of WFH in tracksuits and offensive [to the politically-correct] t-shirts. Created initially to ensure efficiency, offices immediately institutionalised idleness. A genteel arms race arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as managers tried to make their minions work, and the minions tried their hardest to avoid it.

As the years flew by in the 20th century, the people who had once designed factories turned their attention to offices. The moving parts in these machines were humans and their output merely paper but, it was reasoned, the same principles surely applied. Teams armed with stopwatches, and a firm belief that a well-oiled office was a wonderful thing, recorded how long each task took. Anything that added extra tick-tocks of time received a cross in their recommendations.

But getting actual productive work done has never really been the point of offices. We know this now. The real point has been "to manage you effectively". Google translate: micro-manage you to satisfy the financial & psychotic needs of the faceless leaders in some far away HQ who boldly proclaim "people are our most important asset" [ps: people are not assets - desks are.] When time-and-motion studies examine offices now, their results can be dispiriting. Office work takes up not merely the bulk of our time, but the best part of it, the hours when we are alert and alive. Home, and its occupants, has finished second. Most managers spend at least 20 hours a week in meetings, according to a 2014 study by Bain & Company. Over the course of a lifetime that amounts to nearly five full years. Many of these meetings, in retrospect, might well have profitably been skipped. In the case of Melbourne IT, you can replace 'might well' with 'definitely'.

Where Ancient Rome had the Colosseum, and Renaissance Florence had Brunelleschi’s dome, we have endless, interchangeable glass-and-steel boxes. This, says Thomas Heatherwick, a British architect, is because the design of offices – indeed all public buildings – has been “lazy”. In the past, he says, workplaces “could get away with just being a desk”, much as shops could get away with “just being somewhere which had stacks of socks".

The digital revolution means that such complacency risks redundancy. Workstations are now tiny and can be anything, anywhere - the bed, the couch, the kitchen table, the easy chair by the pool. With powerful reliable laptops, video conferencing software, cloud computing, and ‘chat’ functionality and collaboration tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Teams, working together remotely has never been so easy.

Now, there has to be good reason for you to leave your home, otherwise why would you go & fight it out in the traffic to mix with duplicitous, over-zealous control freaks?

The office has been trying to persuade you to leave home and stay away for quite a while.

Daring architects have broken the mould to construct buildings in the shape of gherkins, cheese graters and cricket balls. To change the stale spaces inside, start-ups introduced table-tennis tables, bars, snack machines, mini-libraries, "alone spaces" and mini-gyms to take out your frustrations on the machines. SEEK in Australia once had alcoholic drinks delivered to your desk at 4pm every Friday. [okay, that was awesome,I admit]. Google USA offered free cooked food, medical practitioners and outdoor beach volleyball pits, in an attempt to keep workers perpetually in their embrace.

But it has all stopped working. Time for the office to sharpen up its attitudes and offerings to humans, or be consigned to the dustbin of history. So we could be witnessing two kinds of history right now.

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