Writing in the Pacific Standard, Greg Rosalky asks Why do we still commute? Why, in this age of internet and computers, do we still go to offices? He discusses Norman Macrae of the Economist, writing in 1975 about the impact of computers on the office.
Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change. "Telecommunications," Macrae wrote, "will alter society's patterns more profoundly than the previous and smaller transport revolutions of the railway and automobile have done."
In 1985, at the dawn of the portable phone age, The Harvard Business Review wrote that Your office is where you are, noting that without a cord on your phone, you could work from anywhere. I have been joking for years that with everything now capable of running on your phone, today your office is in your pants. We have been discussing this issue since we started; we all work from home, and have long been convinced that it is greener, healthier, but also critical to getting people out of cars, reducing CO2 emissions and eliminating congestion. So why do so many people still have to go to the office?
Rosalky claims that "Social science points to the importance of face-to-face interaction for worker productivity." He points to studies showing that teams working together are more productive. "Being physically close helps us bond, show emotions, problem solve, and spontaneously come up with ideas."
Evidently email or Skype are not good enough, according to psychologist Jeremy Bailenson, interviewed by Rosalsky.
Most scholars who study this area, he says, are in agreement that a significant amount of information is conveyed non-verbally. Many of these non-verbal channels, like body language, facial expressions, and eye movements, are lost with email, instant messaging, and even Skype. This is especially the case when meetings involve multiple people.
Honestly, after reading all the recent #metoo stories about office harassment and abuse of power, I think we have all had a bit too much body language and non-verbal channels. In fact, if you look at the history of offices, it is a history of abuse- the guys in the offices around the perimeter, the women in the steno pool in the middle. Mad Men was more of a documentary than a drama; the men got a telephone and an office; the women a typewriter and a file cabinet and a whole lot of unwanted attention.
Now the office, particularly in tech, is mostly young men in giant playgrounds and again, there is far too much non-verbal channelling and body language. As for the few women around, forty percent of American women say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention or coercion at work. A little more working from home might be helpful.
Bailenson suggests that the Next Big Thing is Virtual Reality.
When it comes to creating a virtual office so good it could eliminate the need to commute, Bailenson says, the Holy Grail is achieving what is known by psychologists as "social presence." That's the state of mind in VR in which users are able to experience digital avatars of people as if they’re actual people.
But maybe not. First of all, you can have too much information, too much social presence. We run TreeHugger over Skype and tried using video, and found in the end chat work best, with a voice only meeting next up. That way I don't have to worry about what I am wearing and the state of my hair. But Bailenson thinks we need more:
"If we can nail what I call 'the virtual handshake,' the subtle, non-verbal pattern of eye-contact, interpersonal distance, posture, and other critical nuances of group conversations," he says, "then we finally have a chance to put the commute in our rear-view mirror."
I am not convinced. As Jerry Useem writes in the Atlantic, in jobs are about personal productivity- how many sales you close, how many words I write, then really, whether one works from home or not doesn't matter.
But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency”—the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.
But how many of those kinds of jobs are there really? I suspect not that many. It is more likely that the traditional office is just running on inertia, and that many of the young people working close to each other in that collaborative offices are actually texting each other because they prefer it to talking.
So back to Greg Rosalky's question Why to we still commute? Because our boss made us do it.