The empire of the office has triumphed over modern professional life.
The dimensions are awesome, in the hundreds of millions, on every nation on Earth, dominating the skylines of our cities are no longer cathedrals but multi-story vats filled with workers.
Offices delineate the lives of hardworking citizens who will spend more waking hours with colleagues than with your husband or wife, lover or children.
Or used to. Suddenly, almost overnight, the world’s offices emptied out, waiting for commuters who never come. With the digital revolution and flexible work hours nearly half our workforces already worked remotely, at least some of the time. Now office life is dead. As with any sudden loss, our judgement is blurred by conflicting emotions.
Offices where designed as factories, based on tick tock time-and-motion observation studies, but studies find workers work best when being observed for studies. Office were created for efficiency but institutionalized idleness. Getting work done is not the point of offices. You might do everything you need to do in two concentrated hours in the morning. The countryside rhythms of work once piecemeal and weather dependent are now knit into the fabric of life itself. Managers spend 20 hours a week in meetings, or five full years over a career, which in retrospect might profitably be skipped.
Sitting in offices is almost the new smoking, and offices entrench inequities such as more men named Steve than women CEOs among the FTSE 100. Offices ongoing indifference to children leads working women to endure endless stock photos of suited women both holding babies and tearing their hair out. In interchangeable glass-and-steel boxes WeWork’s resignation shows the office needs to be more than a workplace with cucumber water and superior snacks.
Despite commutes, colleagues, sitting and stale meetings, offices offer the joy of great artificiality. What a wonderful thing, pretending our clothes are in order and we are professional and impersonal.
While working in our homes in our jogging bottoms there is an awful lot of unraveling going on. Now amid the messes of children, crumbs and laundry, we realize the pretense of an orderly office life is a liberation, to be a different, bit more impressive person.
Online encounters are keeping us alive socially, but now peering into each other’s houses we are confronted with looming heads and the horror of self-awareness that we, too, must look awful. What moves us is not sitting in front of screens, but the relationships we have with people. All those desks and all those people have their benefits.