The Office Isn’t Dead

 


If the home is where I live, the office can be where I work. I’ve never had a problem with this distinction. In fact, I used to quite like it until it disappeared.

If I ask you “How’s the office?” right now, you’ll probably say some version of: “What office? My office is everywhere, as long as it’s in my house.” But what if I slightly alter the question? What if I ask you: “How do you feel about the office?” What’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Maybe, it’s the spicy hot dogs you inappropriately ate at 9 AM in the morning in the canteen of the place you interned at when you were 23. Maybe, it’s that one overbearing boss whose antics made you paranoid about details in a way you can’t quite shake to this day, paranoia you now often wonder about, hating it, yet thinking it may actually, ironically, contribute to your success.

Maybe, it’s the friendly doorman greeting you with a relentless smile each morning as you entered a big skyscraper you knew you’d only leave when it was dark again. Maybe, it’s the pungent smell of your colleague’s desk plant, a plant you wanted to throw into the trash every time you walked by but that now, you still somehow seem to miss.

Whatever they may look like, chances are, your feelings about the office are more complicated than “I’m so glad to be rid of it.” At least mine are.

Right now, many people proclaim the death of the office. We love to write eulogies for anything but people. Bitcoin. The internet. And now the office. Unfortunately, eulogies about people seem to be the only ones we can get right — probably because they’re the only ones where we actually try to leave our judgments at the door.

I don’t mind being told about the death of the office. I like being presented with data. What will we use all this space for? How can we keep local businesses in play? Data makes me learn. Eulogies make me think.

I do mind, however, when someone tells me what to think, and with most “the office is dead” articles, that seems to be the case. They tell me I hate the office, but I’m not so sure. They even dare suggest that, deep down, I’ve always hated the office, and that celebrating its demise is the only appropriate response — and that, quite frankly, is bullshit.

The first reason the office isn’t dead is that it gives us a dedicated, physical space to do our work, and that has value.

Most people don’t thrive in extremes. If pre-pandemic, the majority of folks didn’t like spending too much time at the office, post-pandemic, the majority of them won’t like not going there at all.

Most of my friends say they’d like to go to the office 2–3 days a week. They enjoy the added flexibility of a work-from-home schedule when they need it, but they also miss the real-world interactions they currently can’t have — and no, sitting in a coffee shop with strangers will not be the same, even once those shops reopen. In this case, optionality is the solution more so than anyone particular option.

For some, working from home has poisoned the well of their sanctuary. One friend told me: “I work on the couch, I work at my desk, and I work at my kitchen table. I rotate between the three to give myself the illusion of a change of scenery, but really, all it means is that, at the end of the day, I can’t relax no matter where I sit — and so I just keep working.”

If the home is a place to recharge, the office can be a wonderful place to spend the energy you’ve collected. Meanwhile, when you only work from home, it’s as if you could only use your phone when it’s connected to your charger: It works, but it’s not flexible, and that makes the whole experience unsatisfying.

I’ve always been “location-independent,” needing only a laptop and wifi, but even I have come to feel how much the mental separation of work and play can depend on the physical separation of home and the office. At the very least, it makes it a lot easier.

I don’t go to the office to attend meetings, socialize, or procrastinate. I go to the office to work. This isn’t to say those other things won’t happen, but they’re not the reason I want a dedicated place for my job. I want that place because it allows me to focus on the purpose I’ve assigned to it — work — and it also allows me to drop that focus when I leave.

I know I’m not the only one with these thoughts, and, therefore, I know we don’t yet live in a post-office world (pun intended).

The second reason the office isn’t dead is that, on its own, the office as space doesn’t do anything.

It is only when people arrive that friction occurs, friction-based on different people forming different interpretations of what “the office” is supposed to mean — and so the office was never the problem. The problem is human relationships, and we all know those are hard.

Culture only exists between people, and office culture is a particularly tricky thing to manage. It’s also the cause of and solution to all our office problems.

Many people hate meetings. How many meetings you have, however, has nothing to do with whether you’re at home or in some shiny glass building. It’s a function of office culture.

Chances are, your number of meetings has stayed roughly the same post-pandemic, except now, you have them in front of a screen instead of a real human. For every person who prefers it that way, there’s one who’d rather deal with folks face-to-face.

As a corollary, Asana pioneered “No Meeting Wednesday” five years ago, a time when Silicon Valley office space was booming. CEOs have always been free to push for fewer, shorter meetings, and some, like Oprah, long have and always will.

The point is that if you associate going to the office with a lot of pesky meetings, you’re associating the wrong things. You’re pinning a cultural issue on circumstantial conditions and ignoring the real variable behind the scenes: people.

If leadership loves meetings, you’ll have many meetings. Therefore, if you want to avoid meetings, you must avoid working for a company where leadership loves meetings.

This same dynamic applies to every “typical office problem” you can think of, whether it’s petty competition vs rallying around a shared goal, too many addictive perks vs too little health protection, or too rigid of a hierarchy vs too flat of an org chart to know who’s responsible for anything.

People make decisions, and then people must live with the outcomes of what they’ve decided. There are constraints, like money and time, but there’s always flexibility within those constraints — for your leadership, for your team, but also for you, the individual. The problem of “Should I want to go to the office, or should I prefer to stay at home?” is no different.

The next time you read “the office is dead,” take it with a grain of salt. No matter how compelling someone’s arguments, if they boil down to a black-and-white statement like “the office is a failed concept,” they’re probably looking for clicks more so than for truth.

In this case, the truth is that the office — like everything — is only as good as we make it.

If you spend your time there with a group of people committed to doing their best work and making the office a place that enables that, you’ll likely enjoy whatever that place will become.

Meanwhile, if your building is a shark tank full of status-signaling, vanity-metric-seeking, big-meeting-loving bubbleheads, it’s no wonder you can’t get anything done, nor that you don’t want to go back.

In a way, the pandemic has made “the office” stronger than ever before — because the idea of the office is now more flexible than it ever has been. Countless new modes of working have emerged, and plenty more are on the way.

Therefore, it has never made less sense to let anyone tell you that your idea of the office is false, preposterous, or unrealistic. No one else must live with your vision of work, and so no one else should be allowed to dictate what that vision must be.

Will you look back fondly on your days at the office? Or would you prefer looking back at never having set foot in one? The choice is yours and yours alone, and it can be either end of the spectrum or anything in between.

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