The end of the office

The office is a fairly modern phenomenon. We got by for millenia without them.

For a century, the office was simply a small room next to the factory or the store. The office was upstairs from the bakery, or next to the stockyard or the foundry. Proximity to the worksite was its primary attribute.

For the last fifty years, though, more and more office workers never actually saw the factory floor.

Office culture became a thing onto itself, with layers of workers supporting other workers who supported workers who helped improve the productivity of the factory, whatever sort of factory that was.

And office culture was based on physical proximity. With most written communication taking far too long (a week for a letter!) and electronic communication insufficient in resolution, we built office towers to house the layers of office hierarchy that were evolving. We even named ‘the corner office’ after an executive’s physical location in the flow of information and power.

But then the factory was moved even further away–most big company CEOs have never even visited all of their factories, retail outlets or development centers. And if you have more than a few, it means that no matter where you are, you’re not at most of them.

And then email turned written communication into something instant and high resolution. Asynchronous messaging eliminates time.

And then Zoom meant that location didn’t matter much either.

Over the last 18 months, many of us have felt isolation as part of the dislocation from the office. Easily overlooked, though, is how much faster and more efficient so many systems became. Now, it’s not the communications system that’s holding us back, it’s our unwillingness to make change happen in concert with our peers.

Some organizations dealt with enforced work-from-home by using endless Zoom meetings as a form of compliance… a high-tech way to take attendance. But others leaned into the opportunity to create nimble, task-oriented decision making and communications hubs, ones that were no longer constrained by physical proximity.

The last forty years have taught us that the technology that most disrupts established industries is speed. The speed of connection to peers, to suppliers and most of all, to customers. The speed of decision making, of ignoring sunk costs and of coordinated action. The internet has pushed all of these things forward, and we’ve just discovered, the office was holding all of them back.

As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems.