Two Views of the Future of the Office

One says we have seen this before; another says it's changed forever.

Women at work in office
An office in 1966.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ Getty Images

A lot of people in the real estate world are thinking about the future of the office. I have been writing about how the office is dead ever since I started writing on Treehugger, influenced by a 1985 article in the Harvard Business Review written after the development of the first portable wireless phone, titled "Your Office is Where You Are." I wrote an update at the start of the pandemic suggesting that the coronavirus may change the way we think about the office for a very long time.

Wendy Waters of GWL Realty Advisors doesn't agree and takes a longer-term view in a post titled "History Repeats: How Past Experience Informs the Post-COVID Office Future." She looks back at every economic crisis since the 1990s, but also at those changes in technology that everyone thought would kill the office, but didn't.

Woman at IBM PC
The office in 1984.

Retrofile/ Getty Images

Waters starts with the personal computer, which reduced the need for the typing pool, but created all kinds of new work that replaced it, doing spreadsheets and graphic design in-house. Then broadband was going to let us all work anywhere, but the office triumphed again, to support "an increasingly well-educated and innovative 'creative class' of knowledge workers." It changed office planning, though: "Open floor plans in office space allowed for more instant communication while team meeting rooms and 'chill spaces' gave workers alternative places in which to work individually or collaboratively."

Then the iPhone was going to change everything, but Waters says it created more office jobs, which it did by the thousands in new industries.

And then we have the current situation, where everyone was forced to work from home on their kitchen tables and communicate on Zoom. She thinks it is failing, that "many leaders, as well as individuals, have noted that it is harder to be innovative, inspired, or truly do collaborative problem solving over video conference."

"Early evidence suggests the office will triumph again for the same reasons it has repeatedly done so over the past 30 years. Humans are social creatures. We naturally build relationships and work together. However, collaborating via a technology conduit is different than problem-solving in person... Although not often measured as productivity, key to the success of many organizations are the spontaneous chats as well as formal meetings at the office that create bonds—shared experiences – which then make it easier for people to solve problems or work on projects together....Although post COVID-19 most office workers will likely have an option to work remotely, at least part time, evidence from previous cycles suggests that the majority will choose to be in the office much of the time."
Women at work in the office, 1907
Women at work in the office, 1907.

Bettman Archive/ Getty Images

The problem that I have with Waters' analysis is that I do not believe she went back far enough, just looking at the technological changes that have happened since the 1980s with the personal computer. Instead, you have to go back another hundred years to the start of the Second Industrial Revolution, which gave us the office in the first place, and when the defining technologies were electricity and the telephone, leading to a massive consolidation of businesses and the rise of the corporation.

As Margery Davis wrote in "Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers,1870-1930" these bigger businesses needed record-keeping, which led to typists, which led to more records, which led to the vertical filing cabinet, which led to the office as we know it. Vaclav Smil writes in his latest book, "Growth":

"The second industrial revolution of 1870–1900 (with its introduction of electricity, internal combustion engines, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, launching of oil extraction and chemical industries) was far more consequential than both the first revolution (1750–1830, introducing steam and railroads) and the third (begun in 1960 and still unfolding, with computers, the Web and mobile phones as its icons)."

All the new technologies that Waters lists are evolutionary, part of this Third Industrial Revolution that is as Smil notes, still unfolding. It is management that fought against change, believing that all that creating of bonds and spontaneous interactions were key to creativity, and seeing bums in seats was key to managing. But the Third Industrial Revolution caught up to them with a bang thanks to COVID-19, and they have learned how to manage without being in the same room. And, notwithstanding the benefits of bumping into someone at the coffee bar, some managers are finding that they are outweighed by other considerations.

Or is the Office As We Knew it Dead?

Women typing after office bombed
Women typing in garden after bombing raid destroyed their office, 1941.

A. Hudson/ Getty Images

Writing on a British real estate site, The Developer, in a post titled "Both Offices and People are Migrating: Where are they Going?" Steve Taylor takes a different stance than Waters. He wonders why anyone would want to go back to commuting, and why any manager would really want them to. He quotes economist Adam Ozimek, who discusses the "rarely acknowledged productivity-sapping aspects of shared workspace":

"'We don’t measure the negative overspill effects of agglomeration or the negative externalities within the office - interruptions, distractions, meetings,' writes Ozimek.'Those costs are real, and they reduce productivity.' Ozimek also challenges remote working’s supposed lack of serendipitous interactions: 'the supposed benefits of clustering together to help workers exchange ideas and enjoy ‘knowledge spill overs’ have shrunk and may even be gone in many cases.' If true, it pulls the rug from under a popular rationale for office work."

Taylor also quotes a Harvard Business Review study which found that "working remotely, it turned out, was more focused, customer-oriented and supportive of individual professional development, whilst being less performative, hierarchical and boring."

This doesn't mean the end of cities, but Taylor and others in the UK do not believe that the world is going back to the way it was before; too much has changed, and the purpose of the office itself may well have changed.

"All this begs the question, what exactly is the office for? There is a broadly agreed shortlist of activities that work better in a shared environment, including training, induction, culture-building, socials, team working sessions, individual ‘pods’ for people who cannot or do not want to work from home and acoustically-protected spaces for virtual meetings and workshops."

But warehousing workers sitting at keyboards and computers? It's really expensive, and many workers would rather not do the commute. Companies can save a lot of money, which can be put to work in more productive ways. And of course, employees save all the stress, money, time, and carbon emissions that come from the commute to the office.

Two Different Views (or Maybe Three)

AT&T Picture phone demonstration
Office of the Future, 1964, AT&T Picturephone.

 AT&T Photo Service/United States Information Agency/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

In her article, Waters makes the case that technology may change the office, but that the office is resilient and keeps coming back after each crisis because people work better together, and the technology actually creates the need for more office space. Taylor questions this, and questions the entire management idea that people actually work more effectively when they are bumping into each other. He doesn't see the office as we know it coming back.

I believe that the end of the office has been nigh since the Third Industrial Revolution of the computer age started and that it was being artificially held back because people are slower to change than technology. The pandemic changed everything because it made it all happen overnight whether we wanted it to or not. And just as the typewriter was there and put to use when the Second Industrial Revolution hit, Zoom and Slack were waiting for this. The technology existed; it was management, inertia, and force of habit that had to change.

From a sustainability point of view, every square foot of glass and steel office building or concrete parking garage that is not built is a plus for the environment. As is every drive that isn't taken to the office or for that matter, every highway that isn't expanded to accommodate more commuters. Every dollar spent close to home at a local shop instead of the chain store or fast food joint in the office building basement is a plus. Every walk or bike in a 15-minute city is healthier than a drive or a subway ride downtown. It is just a smarter utilization of resources and space. As Bucky Fuller noted many years ago:

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”