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With the digital revolution allowing us to work anytime, anywhere, experts lined up to predict the death of the office. But their warnings were premature. In recent years, some of the fiercest exponents of working from home have backtracked, changing flexible working policies and luring employees back to the bricks-and-mortar office.
The advantages of remote working are clear for some employees in some industries. But a shared physical space still holds enduring relevance and a symbolic significance for 21st-century workers.
Our current working environment is the result of more than 100 years of technological change. In the 20th century, the telephone allowed businesses to build offices away from their factories. Later, rising land prices and steel-frame construction techniques inspired the development of skyscrapers. Offices evolved into spacious, open-plan environments housing hundreds of employees, reinforcing a clear distinction between home and work.
The next iteration of communication technology has enabled us to work virtually, carrying a fully functioning office wherever we go. The result has been to cut office overhead costs and increase flexibility for employees, particularly working parents. According to a recent Gallup poll, 43% of Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely last year, up from 9% in 1995. This rapid transformation fuelled predictions that the office would become a thing of the past.
But it was technology companies that led the backlash against remote working. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s surprise announcement in 2013 that the company would require all employees to work from a corporate office marked a sea change. Explaining the move, Mayer reflected: “People are more productive when they’re alone. But they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”
In March 2017, one of the most notable proponents of remote working also reversed its policy. After repeated quarters of falling revenue, IBM informed over 2,000 of its US staff they could no longer work from home. The company told Bloomberg that bringing staff back into a traditional space could lead to faster, more productive, more creative workers. “IBM’s strategy is about adopting the best work method for the work being done,” a spokesperson said. “For example, small, multi-disciplinary teams of engineers, coders, project managers and designers work in close proximity, often directly with clients or end users, continually generating and refining ideas.”
Even the most technologically advanced companies have been forced to recognise that remote working has drawbacks and unintended consequences, as well as the advantages of flexibility. The rise of homeworkers and coffee-shop creatives has also led to a renewed appreciation of the office, from the collaborative opportunities of a shared physical space to the intangible benefits of a strong company culture.
Research supports the view that the creative, collaborative qualities of the office environment can’t simply be replicated on the screens of our smartphones, tablets and laptops. Studies by Justin Kruger at New York University have shown how we consistently overrate our ability to communicate over email, and fill in the gaps in communication with faulty guesses. Meanwhile, the work of Robert E Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University has demonstrated how digital technology has failed to create environments where collaboration succeeds as well as it does in the office. Shared physical spaces and proximity to each other are crucial to effective understanding between employees.
Flexible working hasn’t always improved the lives of workers either: for many, a reliance on digital communication has ended up blurring the boundary between work and home. As Monash University’s Anne Bardoel points out, technology “has increased our ability to work from home and outside of regular hours, but at the same time it has increased the expectation that we will do so”. In this way, remote working further complicates the difficult work-life balancing act that employees already face. Other researchers have identified what they call “flexibility stigma”, where remote workers in high-level roles feel they need to put in long hours at evenings and weekends to demonstrate their passion for the job, fearing that otherwise they will be overlooked for advancement. “You have to prove yourself worthy of your job by making it the central focus of your life – the uncontested central focus of your life,” says Joan C Williams, director of the Centre for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “Technology now sets no work boundaries. So we have to set these work boundaries through social norms.”
Employees have also noticed the impact on the way they work. Akshat Rathi, a writer for the online business publication Quartz, mourns the loss of those water-cooler moments of spontaneous brainstorming between his colleagues who work virtually from all corners of the globe. He says that despite the vast array of tech solutions for communication at their fingertips – Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Cisco’s web conferencing and even the old-fashioned phone call – it can’t replace “serendipitous bumping into each other” for sparking new ideas. “We may have video calling on almost every messaging service today, but it doesn’t replace face-to-face conversations,” Rathi says. “The subtle expressions on someone’s face or their body language, which are often missed on a Skype chat, add a crucial layer of unspoken communication. That’s why such chats are critical for building trust between members of a team.”
Companies are adapting by trying to find a balance between far-flung collaborations and face-to-face conversation. For businesses such as the flight search company Skyscanner, which has 900 employees working across time zones and geographies, it’s a necessity. Someone in the company’s Barcelona office might log in remotely to watch staff in the Miami and Singapore offices make a joint presentation. But there’s also an emphasis on having employees spend time together in a shared space. “Within our UK offices, the first hours of the day tend to be reserved for meetings,” said Ruth Chandler, Chief People Officer at Skyscanner.
Staff testify to the benefits of this balance. Software engineer Matteo Ruina says he takes advantage of flexible working policies to work remotely from his native Italy. But he still benefits from the time he spends in the London office working face-to-face with his team. “I really appreciate when I can be in the office with my colleagues to have a good brainstorm session and or to tackle a difficult problem,” Ruina says. “Being in a shared workplace also helps in developing good working relationships, and gives me the opportunity to get to know other people that I don’t work with directly.”
What we are witnessing isn’t the death of the office, but its latest evolution. The construction of a new $5 billion headquarters by Apple in California is a monumental example of one of the world’s most innovative technology companies demonstrating its investment in the bricks-and-mortar office. It shows how businesses are moving towards a fluid working environment that enhances professional life – where employees still have an assigned desk, but can move freely between quiet workspaces and informal communal areas, cafés and terraces.
Futuristic designs like these show how companies are betting on a future which harnesses the power of these impromptu encounters between employees and their creative collaborations. After all, they might just kick-start the next big idea.