A belief in the necessity and viability of the office has fired emotion for many decades. Not just since March 2020. Those heretics who detested it — and the faff and cost of getting to it — often vocal and energised — were, until lockdown, mere outliers, disorganised and small in number. The voices in the wilderness found a handful of organisations who had rejected its necessity around which to cluster. They wondered if collectively they would ever be heard. Then came Covid.
Within the office faith, meanwhile, schisms were commonplace and often fraught, but ultimately contained within the envelope of their unassailable right to exist. At a local level, anger would surface amongst besuited executives on hands and knees, measuring office sizes with a standard-issue ruler, protesting the injustice of their diminutive allocation, demanding justice. On a macro scale, the doctrine of open plan was bitterly contested in the free-to-air kangaroo court of mainstream media. Ultimately, for all the energy expended, it has remained unresolved.
For as long as any living practitioner can recall, we’ve been steadily creating offices on the bedrock of this belief in their necessity, steadily improving their aesthetic and levels of comfort and safety, while expanding their ability to satisfy our every work (and an increasing number of social, leisure and personal) need through the provision of broader and better quality amenities and services. Our commitment to the institution, our need to attend daily, for the whole of the ever-extending day, found formal expression in contracts of employment, the almost feudal need to tie the individual to a building. We never really established which was the object, and which the chained ball.
Yet, over the last 18 months, the workplace agnostic has risen to a position of dominance. Agnostics deny the existence of anything beyond that knowable from their own experience. Deities may exist, for instance, but as they can’t be proven to do so, technically they don’t. Albeit the possibility that proof may be forthcoming forever casts a shadow of doubt. Agnostics, therefore, as empiricists, neither believe not reject outright. In which case, as a wit once said, there’s nothing a good agnostic can’t do if they don’t know whether they believe in it or not.
Workplace agnosticism has proven a safe haven from the increasingly polarised debate. It runs something like this.
It’s been proven (because I’ve proven it) that working from home can be effective and productive (for me), and so for the majority of task-related work we (I — you get the idea) don’t need to be at the office with all of the cost incurred and disturbance it involves. I know this for sure.
Yet there are some things for which it is possible that face-to-face interaction might be better, such as the impromptu surfacing and development of ideas, the creation and building of relationships at a professional and social level, and the strengthening of a sense of common purpose and belonging. While there may be other physical spaces, facilities and locations within our broader environment that may enable these outcomes, if only we were anywhere near organised enough, should these contributions to our working lives be true, the office still probably represents the best overall response. At the moment.
Unlike the non-believers, for whom the prospect of setting foot back in an office induces a near-fatal nausea, agnostics sense that the office offers something. They just can’t prove it.
And so the expression ‘hybrid’ has emerged. Which means we can spend some our time being productive working from home — doing stuff we have to and know how to, knowing we can be, measuring our endeavours against a scale of success we’ve devised for ourselves — and some of our time wrestling with our doubt at the office, wanting to believe that the effort was worthwhile and find some qualitative measure that support it, but not privately wanting it to be so worthwhile that we feel compelled to show up every day.
When we say office, of course we mean all types — corporate, flexible, managed, and cowork, and all shades between. However organised, presented and made available, they’re all still offices — a range of serviced work settings and support spaces. Within the agnostic ranks, naturally there is general disagreement as to which denomination offers a superior proposition. The most recent incarnations are also, unsurprisingly the most vociferous as they have a market to win. Some organisations have taken some of each to test and compare their viability, a hint of rigour in the air.
As a tool of our work, the office is a highly complex device. It’s unlikely to have a singular purpose. When we’re told it’s for collaboration and nothing sparks, or it’s for social cohesion and we feel lost, or for innovation and we’re blank, its case is, to us, unproven.
The idea therefore that the office is for something specific, common to all, is just as dangerous a proposition as the routine attendance to which we meekly subscribed pre-pandemic. We need to be far more sophisticated in our gathering of evidence. It has nothing to do with utilisation studies (if we’re there) or satisfaction surveys (if we like it) or the usual rooting around in the productivity crevice, either. It’s about the contribution it actually, objectively makes across a broad range of outcomes. We could start with output, ideas, innovation, learning, connectivity, network-building, knowledge sharing, attraction, retention, career development, cross-referrals and sales. For the time being.
The office: does it work?
Longer term, being a workplace agnostic is likely to be exhausting. In so many areas of our working lives evidence is important, if not vital. It is exactly so for the contribution of the office. At last we have an alternative against which to assess whether the office works — the other half of hybrid. If we’re going to start believing in the office again, the evidence is for us to discover, validate and share. If we can’t find it, we’ll know what to do.
It really is the only way out of the binary impasse.