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What’s the point of an office?

There are lots of headlines and articles talking about the end of the office. You think about it, and it kind of makes sense. In a digital age, why do we have to go to a physical office? Why do we all cram ourselves into buses, cars and trains every morning and evening and commute? What’s the point?

Jes Staley, the CEO of Barclays Bank, came out and said it the other day:

“There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy…the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” he told reporters after the bank reported a fall in first-quarter profits.

Wall Street, Canary Wharf, La Defense, the Central Business District and other places … what’s the point. All that real estate and all that space to house thousands of people in a desk-based environment that’s not needed. We can all work from home. Nearly every office job can be done from home. There’s no point in an office.

Source: Channel Partners

It reminds me of the old world where your home office might have a rolodex, fax machine, massive TV and music system in the corner. You would carry around a huge suitcase full of photographic accessories and lenses for your SLR camera, and stack CDs and DVDs in big bookcases on the wall.

All of that stuff, you now carry on a phone that you keep in your pocket or purse. The world has shrunk. You can carry your world around in your pocket or purse. You don’t need all those big rooms full of big music and entertainment systems. You just need a pair of Bluetooth headphones and away you go. You’re free.

My thinking on this was reinforced by The Economist who shared a fascinating article asking: What’s the point of an office?

The article explores the history and operation of offices in-depth and shares a few things that resonate with me. For example:

Most managers spend at least 20 hours a week in meetings, according to a study by Bain & Company in 2014. Over the course of a lifetime that amounts to nearly five full years. Many of these meetings, in wistful retrospect, might have profitably been skipped.  

How much time did you spend in meetings? How much more productive have you been working at home?

I always remember being in a big company, and much of what I was doing at work was socialising. Meetings were socialising. Actual productive work? I don’t know. Maybe half the time. The other the half was chatting and chewing the cud. I always remember one particularly awful meeting where we were planning for a forthcoming tradeshow and spent two hours debating a decision about whether to make our give-away a plastic or leather briefcase. FFS.

Offices are frustrating places. They cram people into a big building, waste hours of the day getting there and back, waste hours of the day when you’re there in vacuous meetings, and waste our souls in a big corporate gravy.

The days of the office are over.

This is certainly true if you are a company born in the internet age. Challenger banks, FinTech firms, Tech start-ups and more have transitioned from office-based to home-based almost overnight. Just look at the Big Tech firms. Facebook and Google have told their employees not to come back for the rest of the year, and Twitter is going even further, saying that even after the virus threat recedes, employees should feel free to work from home permanently.

The days of the office are over.

 

Except …

The Economist article concludes:

Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing. After the initial joy of peering into each other’s houses on Zoom, we are confronted with people’s heads looming even closer than we see them across the desk at work, and we gaze in horror – half of it self-awareness that we, too, must look awful – at thinning hair and double chins. We become freakish specimens rather than people. No Skype chat can replicate what Heatherwick calls the “chemistry of the unexpected” that you get in person.

I must admit that I find the video conferencing awful. I can see my big blotchy face up close on-screen, and it looks nothing like me in real-life. The physical interaction face-to-face is never the same as digital interaction face-to-face. You don’t get the nuances of behaviour and reaction. 93 percent of human interaction is non-verbal, and based upon the physical interactions and nuances of body language (more on that here).

Equally, in a study of 7,000 men and women in the USA, Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties.”

We need to socialise and it needs to be physical, not just digital. Digital helps, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

It came home to me in a recent video call and the guy I was chatting with said that video conferencing was working, but only if everyone was on the digital link. He had a recent meeting where a third of the attendees were in the office and two-thirds remote on video. That call went really badly, as you suddenly realised that those who were in the office had a completely different chemistry to those who were remote. The remote attendees felt they were not part of the office clique. They felt second-class.

So yes, the digital connectivity we all have today is fantastic, but it will never replace the physical chemistry. As for the office? Well …

 

POSTSCRIPT

If you like this theme, Lucy Kellaway has written another great column about the death of the office and what it will likely mean, e.g. where will you find your next relationship if there’s no office around?

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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