In Defense of the Office When people joyfully speak of never having to go back to work in an office, I feel a pang of sadness.
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There's a lot of shade being thrown at the big, bad office these days. Some employees and companies are saying office environments are a thing of the past. They aren't important, necessary or relevant anymore, I hear. Some say there's no point going to an office because we can do everything at home. They adamantly claim we should all be remote workers forevermore.
We may all be home-bound for eternity. But I feel a strong compulsion to take a contrarian position, in defense of the office, for the great benefits and purposes it has served. And not just through my own career, but countless others.
Of the key memories I treasure from my early career, none entails staring at a computer screen, alone, in my dining room. That many young people are beginning their first jobs without the camaraderie of the workplace makes me sad. Organizational leaders are deciding whether the physical office is an essential part of our work. I hope they remember how their own office experiences transformed their careers and their professional capabilities.
Taking it all in
Let's be straight — there is no substitute for in-person experiences. Period. In the nascent days of my professional journey, sharing a physical space with esteemed senior leaders afforded me the chance to watch how they moved or operated through the workplace. I watched how they spoke, how they listened and how they interacted with all levels of employees both in casual hallway interactions and in-person meetings. I observed how they held themselves, how they entered and commanded a room, how they garnered attention and respect. In difficult times, I observed how they handled stress and crisis. Watching these executives at the formative stages of my career was an irreplaceable education.
Not only did I have the benefit of in-person observation, but I also had easy and open access to the mentors of my youth. I found myself walking next to them from the parking lot, joining them for lunch or popping by their office for a chat. I know, without a doubt, that had my professional experience been reduced to Zoom, I would never have developed my skills to the same degree or risen to the level I have. The office experience was a vital building block of my executive identity.
Getting to know you
Beyond this, and again due to physical proximity, I formed lifelong friendships with coworkers. We'd sit together for big company meetings or lunches, sharing jokes and stories based on common, hilarious memories. We'd go out for happy hours or dinner, or get together on weekends or even vacations. I cannot imagine how it would have been to have meandered through a video career, experiencing none of that. Occasional team meetings and a laptop camera do nothing to build true friendships.
And here's another loss to ponder. I don't know about you, but I personally have about six different friends who married someone they met — you guessed it — at the office. They got to know someone in person, over months or years. They felt a spark that led to dating that led to marriage. Tell me how that happens over Zoom! The office was always a source of relationships beyond work. Having everyday interactions with groups of people you really got to know was one of the best and (now) underappreciated elements of the office experience. Now some want to characterize all of that as having been shackled, and see the benefits as inconsequential and secondary to the freedom of home-based work.
The silo of deprivation
Can you imagine having your complete college experience virtually, coming together once or twice a quarter for in-person activities? Neither can I. I may be the lone voice on this topic who saw tremendous value in office-based interactions, but so be it.
In reality, even small interactions with the IT guy in the hallway, the marketing director in the kitchen or the CEO riding up in the elevator strengthened bonds throughout the organization. The conversations that occurred as we moved about the office gave us a personal view of our colleagues. We talked about our weekends and families, met our coworkers' kids on Bring Your Child to Work Day and laughed at each other's ridiculous costumes on Halloween.
We are all aware of how social media has actually contributed to our being less connected as a society — everyone staring into their phones 24/7 and curating identities often unrecognizable to reality. Now, sans offices and living on Slack, Teams and Zoom, we are one more step apart.
A symbolic unity
Something else I will miss about the office may sound trivial. I always found the power of branding in a physical office inspiring. Starting out my career at a pharmaceutical company, iconography was everywhere as you walked through the halls. You'd see our branding in the lobby, on the reception desk and in conference rooms. We even had a little company museum showcasing our history and groundbreaking work. Every time I walked by it, I felt a little connection to the organization's mission and purpose.
In my current and last role, I've managed real estate and I appreciate the impact of motifs and design on an office, how they resonate, reinforce brand and engage employees. Using local imagery, corporate themes and modern layouts, you can create a physical experience that energizes people and fosters connection and collaboration. No matter how I try, I just can't seem to achieve that in my home office!
You know that phenomenon where you walk into a room and immediately forget what you came in there for? It's called the Doorway Effect, and it's been researched for decades. There are theories that passing through a doorway simply triggers memory loss. Other theories suggest event boundaries, which I find interesting. Maybe offices have served a purpose for us we've never fully understood. Maybe going to the office after dropping the kids off at school and walking through the door represented an event boundary — the official beginning of the workday. And maybe walking out the office door represented the end of that workday and the beginning of family time.
In the olden, pre-pandemic days, when you got home from the office and needed to finish up some work, you had to make the conscious decision to get your computer out and boot it up. Now, when you walk past your office a dozen times while making dinner, it's too easy to glance at email and get sucked into another 45 minutes of work. It's no mystery how the boundaries became blurred, making it so much harder to disconnect.
Where to from here?
Let's face it, when the pandemic began, we all thought it was a short-term thing. Being stuck at home was hilarious! We joked about toilet paper shortages, the number of liquor bottles in neighborhood recycling bins and being housebound. We shared funny TikTok videos and tried to make the most of it by hosting global happy hours and sharing our pets and toddlers on tiny screens. But the novelty wore off after Month Six. Virtual happy hours have virtually disappeared. We're sick of it. We're social creatures and we want and need to see three-dimensional people.
That's why this anti-office movement concerns me. We went through shock and awe in the first year of this pandemic and now that we are settled in, are we arriving at some premature conclusions? We really don't know the long-term effects on productivity or employee satisfaction of a fully remote workforce.
Those of us further along in our careers may indeed find eternal comfort working from our private home offices. But on the other side of the generation gap are young workers who can't afford large homes with offices. They've been confined to 500 square foot apartments for the past 20 months, with literally nowhere to go to escape from work. They want mentors, relationships and learning experiences — and not through laptop cameras.
To be clear, I'm not advocating for a return to the 40 hour per week office life. That was passe' even before the pandemic. Many employees have long enjoyed some degree of flexibility in their work lives, working at home occasionally or a few days a week and being given the autonomy to balance life demands. That's called treating your employees like adults and it's the right thing to do. And yes, there are locations where the commute is absolutely awful and employees relish not having to make that trip. Totally understandable.
Perhaps I am simply being nostalgic about a world that gave me so much and that many seem ready to discard. I don't think offices are the enemy. I'm optimistic that maybe we'll find a middle ground. While the new hybrid or "hotelling" version of the office many are moving to won't foster the same sense of community, I hope we'll remember the goodness of being around our colleagues. And remembering that, we'll seek it out just a bit more.