Guest Post

It is the people, not the office, stupid!

It has become fashionable to mourn the office in the post-corona era as pundits are bracing us for a home office existence. But those who are hoping for happiness as the result of an office-free working environment, are misguided.

During the last decades the entertainment industry has been thriving on the misery of the modern working place. Dilbert, Fight Club, Office Space, The Office all make us laugh about the idiotic bosses and annoying co-workers, not to mention the red tape that surrounds us every day.

We can seek comfort in books like David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018) or Corinne Maier’s Hello Laziness (2005), if we feel that our jobs are meaningless.

Open office can be useful for many sectors – from journalism to whatever goes for creative work. But for many individual contributors who used to have their own offices it’s the living embodiment of Sartre’s “Hell  is other people”. Although several studies pointed out that productivity suffers in open offices – partially due to absence as result of illness – most companies have clung to open offices. It is reasonable to believe that behind the corporate bullshit about collaboration and enhanced team spirit there is a cold-headed calculation about costs.

Thanks to Covid-19 even those reluctant to allow home office had no choice but to participate in this new experiment.

Have traditional offices become obsolete? Are we working better from outside the office?

The Economist wrote recently that big corporate headquarters may disappear as more employees will be home-based, and companies will save money by not being forced to rent expensive downtown properties.

Lucy Kellaway, a former columnist at the Financial Times, writes about how we will miss the office if it dies. Acknowledging the downside of working in an office, she reminisces the fun and the characters she met – among them her future husband. The office is sometimes a refuge especially for people who are not happy at home. Office gives structure to life.

Having worked in offices for more than ten years – ranging from a small business with fifteen employees to multinational companies – my experience is that it always comes down to people. The job or the office design matters less than the people surrounding me. My fondest memories are from the office with the worst air conditioning and the lousiest tech system I have encountered throughout my career. That is were I’ve met my best friends. I thrived there because of supportive colleagues and bosses.

The likes of Dilbert and The Office give us the impression that that the idiotic aspects of office life are a natural thing. The feeling many of us have is that just being in the office constitutes work even if there is nothing to do. If you read a book or leave your desk, the manager thinks you are slacking off. (A colleague of mine solved this by reading War and Peace on his computer, looking like he was busy with work-related documents.) The pretense of work can sometimes become a job in its on right.

Many of the trappings of modern office life are man-made and not the result of some mysterious, abstract system. These are results in many cases of mediocre management, who are unable to imagine something better, or trust their people.

The upsides of the corona measures is that home office makes it possible for many of us to escape these nuisances. The manager and the company that have no way of measuring productivity if everybody is working from home have bigger problems than the occasional slacker. If the only proof of your work is the carbon footprint you leave in the office, then either there are serious problems with your work ethic, or you have a bullshit job.

The enforced measures have given the companies no option but to evolve and break with the dogma that unless we can see you, you are not working. At least for now.

It still too early to tell how work will look like in the next couple of years. As an office worker, I hope that the office will not die but change and adapt. Combining the home office with regular office can bring out the best of both worlds.

But at the end of the day, it comes down to people. If your organization is dysfunctional and riddled with incompetent staff, home office will not help you. Your incompetent boss doesn’t have to be in the same building to make life difficult for you. On the other hand, if you are missing your office after two months, you either have a short-term memory, or you enjoy being there. Either way – count yourself lucky.

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