Will busy offices return eventually? Of course they will.

[message: the “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about.]

The Office revives small town Scranton, but it wasn't taped there – SkiftThe estimate from Transport for London is that 72% of workers are still not back at their office this week, which is why the coffee clubs, eateries, bars, and restaurants are still empty and central London feels like a ghost town.

Its the same all over the large cities in the UK: 50% of workers of all industries were still working remotely first week of August and public transport remains shunned like the plague.

Its slightly more “back to normal” in other European countries that ended lock downs sooner than the UK, with around 80% of all workers back to their previous place of work in France, Germany and Italy by August.

Still, nowhere has office life yet returned to the previous levels. More than half of office workers have indicated they would like to work more from home than before and many major employers have indicated they do not expect office life to return to pre-covid levels any time soon. This is fueling widespread speculation around the world of how work is going to change forever and that the nature of inner cities will adapt. You get plenty of visions of workers dialing into virtual offices from their forest homes whilst big cities become terrace-filled pedestrian zones dominated by tourists.

I think its too soon to expect the old office life to be gone forever. Its demise has been prophesised before and quite a few tech companies with the know-how have tried to do away with the office in previous years and failed. Whilst it is true that there has never been such a massive shock to office life as we’ve seen the last 6 months, and so the “new normal” might feel to many like it is sustainable, one can only understand whether one should really expect the “old office life” to be gone forever if we understand what the economic and social reasons were behind the old office life. Why did companies fork out hundreds of billions of dollars per year for decades to afford very expensive places in the middle of cities, forcing their employees into highly wasteful commutes? What made that expense and effort worthwhile in the first place?

There are strong economic forces that made regular office life an equilibrium, with firms that did not comply losing out. Firms that have a regular office life have three things going for them that “from home offices” lack: they offer the staff a venue where they have to socialise; they lead to a rat-race culture that encourages over-working; and they offer a place where clients/suppliers come to visit, come to see up close whom they are dealing with, come to be impressed, and come to be entertained.

So firms with a regular office will pinch the more ambitious, more fun-loving, more socialising workers and clients of firms without a regular office. These disadvantages do not hold if all offices are forced to work from home, which is why they were not so relevant the last 6 months and a different culture seemed sustainable, but they will re-emerge as soon as some offices go back to regular functioning. The “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about. Ditto for their richest and most dynamic clients. To put it as simply as possible: you don’t make real friends on zoom. 

One of the central mistakes many commentators thus have about work and office life is that humans are solitary animals only offering their labour time for money which they use to buy stuff online. Its the kind of thing only a half-trained economist can believe. It is just not true. Humans are group animals, first and foremost. They work because they are in competition and in partnership with their colleagues and people around them. They get aroused and motivated via close contact with other humans. Stop offering them an office in which they are a group and you will eventually find they lose all interest.

A related economic force that will lead us back to the office is that offices impress. In old economic parlance, offices burn money and that serves as proof that a firm has something to lose if it doesn’t keep to its contracts. Offices gives contracts and promises credibility because one can see there is a physical place and  social position firms stand to lose if they dont stick to promises and get taken to court. In more normal speak, a big shiny busy office shows you have skin in the game and an adoring tribe to boot.

A nice recent discussion of the basic psychology and sociology of office life is by Randall Collins. Let me just copy the best bit of his quite long article, which discusses failed previous experiments in abandoning offices and also has as the bottom line that online doesn’t arouse people and thus is doomed to death-by-indifference:

Working Remotely

There is disagreement whether working remotely is effective. Some people prefer working from home. What they like about it are: no commuting; reduced meetings which they feel are a waste of time; and fewer distractions in the workplace. Some dislike working at home; what they dislike are more distractions in the household; less team cohesion; and technical and communication difficulties. (Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2020: based on a survey of hiring managers) Similar points were made by the head of a state judicial unit, who emphasized that much additional time by management personnel was now spent on meetings, and attempts to keep up morale by remote contact; meetings were often frustrating because considerable time was wasted trying to get the communications technology working for all participants. (repeated interviews during March-June 2020)  She sometimes went  to her office in order to use secure communications, and found it refreshing whenever encountering a colleague in person. Efforts to re-open court business, with social distancing and masking precautions, were welcomed by part of the staff and opposed by others. The characteristics of one group or the other are unknown; a hypothesis is that the those more committed to their career and professional identity want to return to their customary work setting; those for whom work is more of a routine prefer to stay home.

Hollywood film professionals said they liked spending less time on planes flying around the country; and less high-level meetings which they considered more habitual than necessary. [Los Angeles Times May 3, 2020] One producer said: “I don’t think video conferencing is a substitute for being in a room with someone, but it is better than just talking on the phone. There are so many ways you communicate with your expression… when it’s delayed and small, you just lose all that. My feeling is it’s 50% as good as an in-person meeting.” [p.E6] In the actual work of making movies, most emphasized that it is a collective process, and some insisted that spontaneous adjustments on-set were the key site for creativity. They also reiterated the point that live audiences are the only way to reliably tell whether a film is coming across, and larger audiences amplify both comedy and drama (i.e. via emotional contagion).

Some businesses have tried to compensate by having “virtual water-cooler” sessions several times a week, where any employee can log in and chat. It is unclear what proportion took part,  how enthusiastically, or with what pattern over time. Some managers reported that company-wide “town-hall meetings” to reassure employees lost interest over time [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020]. DiMaggio et al. (2019) however, found that on-line “brainstorming events” for employees in a huge international company were consonant with some patterns of interaction rituals; this research was carried out in 2003-4, long before the epidemic. The degree of involvement and solidarity in town-hall meetings is a matter of scale; the court administrator reported that feedback about morale was positive after on-line sessions involving group of around 10; but in larger groups it was hard to get a Q&A discussion going. This is similar to what any speaker can observe in ordinary lecture presentations and panel discussions; even with physical presence, most people are reluctant to “break the ice” after the speakers have been the sole center of attention; but once someone (usually a high-status person in the audience) sizes up the situation and says something, it turns out that many others find they also have comments to make. This is a process of micro-interactional attention, which is especially difficult to handle on remote media.

Many managers said that innovativeness was lost without serendipitous, unscheduled encounters among individuals. [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020] In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, half of employers reported a dip in productivity with on-line work. Longer trends, going back before the coronavirus epidemic, indicate that the promise of on-line work was not highly successful. During 2005-15, the era of the high-speed Internet, the percentage of persons in the US regularly working from home increased slowly;  those working from home at least half-time reached a pre-epidemic peak of only 4%. [www.npr.org/sections/money/2020/04/28/846671375/why-remote-work-sucks]  During this period several big corporations, initially enthusiastic, tried to shift to primarily on-line work but abandoned it after concluding it was less effective. In the market-dominating I-T companies, the trend instead was to provide more break rooms, food, play and gym services to keep their workers happy on site. This was abruptly reversed in the coronavirus period.

Zoom fatigue

Popular video-conferencing tools such as Zoom attempt to reproduce F2F interaction by showing an array of participants’ faces on the screen, along with one’s own face for feedback in positioning the camera. Reports on how well it works in generating IR-type rhythm and solidarity are mixed. CEOs of high-tech companies tend to claim that it works well. Among rank-and-file participants, however, complaints are widespread and it even acquired a slang term, ‘Zoom fatigue.’ [Wall Street Journal, May 28 and June 17, 2020]  Achieving synchrony with others is hard to do with a screen full of faces, delayed real-time feedback, and lack of full body language. Since there is a limit to how many individual faces can be shown, in larger meetings some persons are seen only occasionally, and leaders looking for responses often find they get none. Some of the ingredients of IR (not necessarily under that name) are now being recognized by communications specialists; these include fine-grained synchrony and eye movements. In ordinary F2F conversation, persons do not stare continuously at others’ eyes, but look and look away (Tom Scheff made this point to me in a personal communication during the 1980s; for detailed transcripts of multi-modal interaction see Scheff and Retzinger 1991). Thus seeing a row of faces staring directly at you is artificial or even disconcerting. Some readers responded with advice: cut off the video to reduce zoom fatigue, go audio-only. Some found hidden benefits in zoom conferencing: once the round of social greetings is over, turn off the video and your mic and do your own work while the boss goes through their agenda.

Continuously seeing one’s own face on the screen is another source of strain. Of course, as Goffman pointed out, everyone is concerned with the presentation of their self, in terms of status as well as appropriateness for the situation. But one does not have one’s image constantly in a mirror; and when interaction starts to flow, one loses self-consciousness and throws oneself into the activity, focusing more on others’ reactions than on oneself. Those who cannot do this find social interaction embarassing and painful.  But enforced viewing of one’s own image feels unnatural.

Prolonged video conferencing as a whole seems to have about the same effects as telephone conference calls. In my experience on the national board of a professional association, our mid-year meeting was canceled by a snowstorm, and a 2-day conference call was substituted. The next time I saw the board in person, I polled everyone as to whether they liked the conference call: 18 of 20 did not. Lack of shared emotion was apparent during the event; for example, when it was announced that we had received a large grant, there was no response. No wonder: applause and cheers are coordinated by looking at others, and it is embarrassing to be the only person applauding. [Clayman 1993] Work gets done remotely, after a fashion; it just lacks moments of shared enthusiasm.

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3 Responses to Will busy offices return eventually? Of course they will.

  1. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Will Offices go back to what they were pre-covid i.e after a successful vaccine comes around.
    I very much doubt it.

    Offices in the CBD are expensive to lease. Companies now know not everybody needs to work in one.
    I agree young workers will want to work in offices for reasons you gave but those who are older particularly those who wish for a good night’s sleep rather that an allnighter ( whether it be sex or alcohol) would want to work from home.
    Too many advantages to write about.
    Yes many will have to attend meetings probably on mondays but that is all.
    Beware only a few workers have clients and yes they will need to be in the CBD to meet over a coffee but back office workers do not need to .

    Think over another advantage. you could work at home in say Orange and go to the city once a month or so.
    Another is if you have kids schooling.

    Change has come but the office will albeit in a changed and perhaps smaller form. survive

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I broadly agree with your hunches, though when you make one of the features of the office from business owners’ point of view is that “they lead to a rat-race culture that encourages over-working”, getting caught up in that isn’t a feature from the point of view of the workers if they’re capable of a bit of enlightened self-interest. I expect that a lot of your points can be accommodated with a reduction rather than an elimination of office time with more working from home.

    • paul frijters says:

      I certainly expect it to be a while before “the dust settles” as it were.
      Before the covid-shock there was already a slow general trend towards working more days from home. Academics and civil servants were doing a lot of it already. I had many a dial-in conference call or skype-workshop in 2019.

      This is why I use the word equilibrium though: the preceding situation reflected a balance of influence and whole companies had failed experiments with changing their ways. I basically expect to return close to the old situation when the forces that have been temporarily stymied return.

      Sure, enlightened self-interest would change a lot. But we are group animals. Enlightened behaviour is a surprisingly small part of our behaviour, one that costs us a lot of effort and angst.

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