We can’t help but think it’s strange. We’ve been building offices for hundreds of years and are once again trying to understand why we would go to them, on the basis that if we comprehend the drivers we can better frame our response and may get a few more of our colleagues opting in. Articles often appear favouring a principle reason while including a smattering of others, but they’re rarely comprehensive. So this is an attempt to be so.
Back in the hazy day before lockdown, I often used a slide which showed five reasons we go to the office. Beyond, of course, unchallenged habit. With hybrid working they’re still valid, but with the introduction of personal choice and with an outcome manifesting as variable attendance, they’ve been joined by another seven. Which naturally, therefore, makes planning and operating an effective workplace that much more difficult. It wasn’t easy before.
Four points are worth stressing in order that we don’t take all of this too literally. It’s quite possible to have more than one reason. The boundary of each reason can be sketchy; for example we may derive social benefit from a work related interaction, and vice versa. Which is why we get into such a mess with the idea of the office as a space for ‘socialising’. And we often end up doing a lot else besides the reason we decide to attend in the first place. Sometimes even forgetting what it was in the first place. If we even knew. Finally, I may well have missed some.
The original five are:
1. Necessity: akin to factories and laboratories, amongst others, even some office work is indistinguishable from the place in which it’s performed. A receptionist, as the first example you’ll encounter, isn’t going to get a lot of meeting and greeting done at home. We may simply have to be there due to the logistical difficulties of trying to work at home, or someone in our flat share may have got up ridiculously early to bag the ironing board. Or we may be required to attend an event in person that won’t ‘translate’ online, such as a new product demo. They’re all reasons to actually need to be there.
2. Instruction: just because we’ve been given a choice of where to work doesn’t mean to say it’s always exercisable. Some don’t have the choice at all. If it’s not compulsory to attend for five days a week it may be inked into the least imaginative and most depressing outcome of hybrid working, a fixed rota. Or if not so specific, it’s dropped within the boundary rope of 2–3 days a week in the office, as guidance or requirement. It may just be as simple as a 3-line whip ‘team day’ Inevitably Tuesday, with all the other teams, naturally. They’re all reasons to have to be there.
3. Resource: while almost every application we use in office work runs on a laptop, severing us from the once-mighty ball-and-chain processing power of a mainframe, there may be other resources we need that are ‘offline only’. There’s the dwindling (but in many places sadly lingering) need to access files or hard copy information. It could simply be the WiFi speed, A3 colour printer or aircon. Or specific secondary spaces like labs or staging or sample areas. They may not be essential at a specific time, but they can make work more effective. They’re all reasons to prefer to be there.
4. Amenity: There are things we need, in close proximity, often subsidised or free, that we can use. A café and gym are the usual suspects. They’re either the main driver for us overcoming our HoGO (hassle of going out) or they make it the effort worthwhile. Of course they’re generally only available in workplaces large enough to justify the investment. So either provided in multi-tenanted buildings by those landlords just catching onto the idea they have to do more than just whack up four walls and a floor and collect the rent, or organisations large enough to respond to the expectation. They’re all reasons to want to be there.
5. Togetherness: I’m not calling this ‘collaboration’ or ‘social’ as I might once have done, as for the most part they’re inseparable. If we consider the range of activities we may engage in by simply being together — co-ordination, co-operation, collaboration, creativity, innovation, social interaction, networking — we can imagine a short exchange that includes some or all of them. They’re by no means exclusive. The driver for them all is being with other human beings with whom we work, however loosely, face to face. Irrespective of the desired outcome. The work bit is important, we’re not popping out for a swift sharpener with our mates. Which at the time of writing, given the slow rate of return in the Anglosphere doesn’t seem as compelling a reason as was made out to be by the Summer of Surveys. That said, they’re all reasons to like being there. Perhaps, in some extremes, love being there. Steady.
Yet with most office dwellers having been granted a degree of hitherto unavailable choice, there are now another seven:
1. FoMo: Yes, you may quite possibly be missing out on something. The likelihood is it’s not as essential as the stories later told would have you believe. But when we’re dialled in and everyone else is in the room in silly hats, we can’t help thinking we should perhaps get dressed and shuffle out next time. How did they know about the hats and I didn’t? The talk of presence bias will take some time to yield tales of disadvantage, but it looms large, such can be the shallowness of our considerations. By identifying it we’re not eradicating it. That’s just the beginning.
2. Curiosity: When we’ve been away from somewhere for a while we can’t help thinking it must all be different now. Google Earth offers few clues, as you’re in shot with your spotted hankie on a stick. When we arrive back we find it isn’t. Even when we’re told “you should see what they’ve done, it’s all changed”. But it gnaws away at us until we check it out for ourselves. The experience rarely fails to disappoint.
3. Delineation: For many, working at home meant home became ‘work’ (which is still a place, regardless of the cliché) and like milk in tea (an awful idea) they became inseparable however much clickbait on ‘how to separate’ they read. ‘Going to work’ means getting dressed in your own clothes, brushing your teeth before midday and drawing the line at the revolving door on the way in and out. It just helps.
4. Learning: despite most of those advocating the office as a place of ‘learning by osmosis’ being over 40, clearly relishing the chance to be gobshite younger colleagues are destined to learn from, most organisations had assumed (and baked into their approach) that three quarters of development would be from simply doing the job. Of course it only works if enough experienced and inexperienced colleagues are present simultaneously. Which is presently problematic.
5. Visibility: Whether we’re expected to be present occasionally or not, we feel the need to be seen, to wave effusively at everyone while wearing a loud shirt and crank up the vocal chords to that annoying bourgeois level. High fives and hugs if our colleagues are comfortable with proximity. If we waft through like our own personal carnival float, no-one will forget we were in and they’ll affirm it should anyone ask.
6. Stopover: There’s something going on later local to the office, so it’s a good excuse to travel off peak and hang out for while on the way. Perhaps while there, availing ourselves of the amenities we mentioned. We find we can also cover some of (3) above, too.
7. Whim: In workplace thinking and writing (sometimes related) there always has to be a reason for everything. Yet having set out nine specific drivers above for us being present at the office, the last is without cause save for an unconscious prompt. An anti-reason. It’s not the same as dutiful habit. We just go. It feels right, we fancy a change from the kitchen table, it’s a beautiful morning, we woke up at 3am, we’ve just got to get out of the house.
We now also have a whole lot more reasons for not going in, too. It used to be just actual illness, onrushing illness, the potential for illness, or fear of illness. But we went in anyway. Unless it was fabricated illness, as that was the whole point (which often meant a bunch of colleagues were ill but in the office while another bunch were perfectly healthy but elsewhere). Or, we were on holiday, checking our e-mails. Or at someone else’s office. But that’s another post.
We have our reasons for going to the office. The one we no longer have is habit. That’s broken for ever. Or a long time, whichever is the sooner.
Or maybe none of them apply, and we’re still waiting.