Is the office really dead?

Jul 19, 2021

So much has been written lately about the ‘new normal’ working environment in response to 5 lockdowns and months of working from home.

The Age on Saturday July 17 published a well-researched piece with a headline that “The 5 day office week and commute is truly dead”.  Surveys show a significant preference for working from home.

Business leaders are quoted as saying that “forcing people back to work would be a mistake”, that they are “hearing loud and clear from their employees that they want to work remotely”.

It’s a common narrative.

But I am not sure that any of this is necessarily true or accurate.

Having formed working from home habits over many months what would anyone expect the answer to be? Habits are hard to break, and the time to be making decisions for the long term is not while we are working from home, but after an equivalent period of being back in the office.  To make a proper comparison we need to experience office life again, with all the benefits it brings.

But if the answer is still that staff want to work from home, then employers should be asking themselves ‘Why?’

If staff are saying they would rather work from home, then surely the response from employers should be “what can we do to encourage you to prefer being in the office?”.

”How can we make the office experience more meaningful?”

I am sure that all of us employers can do more.

If it’s a given that human contact is a positive and that working together has benefits then perhaps it’s time for businesses to re-set priorities.  Should maximum profit continue to be the only measure of success, as it is for many businesses?  It might be for the key stakeholders but it’s unlikely to be the most important measure for everyone.

Sure profit is important, but perhaps success should be measured by outcomes that are best for the collective.  Positives that impact each and every person in the organization.  Employers can do so much to make a business successful for everyone.  Rethinking what the office experience should be could do a lot for individuals and should also benefit the organisation.

After all what is a business without staff?

And what is work, without connection and common purpose?

Sure, there are some benefits of working from home but if that is the way for most people, most of the time, what hope is there that people will remain connected to their organisation?  What hope is there that staff will get real satisfaction and validation if they are at home most of the time?

And what values will be promoted if everyone works remotely?

At a micro level there is so much that can be done.  Creating environments that compel interaction, that promote a collegiate environment, where successes are shared, where people get to know each other and enjoy the company of others, where mutual respect is a given, are not difficult to introduce.  And the positives are enormous.

But at a structural level this probably won’t happen to the degree required until employers acknowledge and believe that the organisation works for the staff just as much as the staff work for the organisation.  That the responsibility (and in fact privilege) of every business is to enable staff to lead their best lives.  And most importantly employers and managers must recognize that as human beings everyone, and I mean everyone, is equal.

It is, after all, the truth.

Perhaps when this fundamental shift is made, staff will want to return to the office.