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Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

Why the Office Isn’t Going Anywhere Soon

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Philadelphia office building

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Imagine you weren’t tied to your desk or your office. That you could do your job—or significant parts of it—from anywhere you chose. When you close your eyes and envision that, do you find that you’re still in an office? Or are you perhaps on the deck of a boat, or closing deals on a golf course? What would the working world look like if more of us could turn those dreams into reality?

Seth Godin wrote recently that “If we were starting this whole office thing today, it’s inconceivable we’d pay the rent/time/commuting cost to get what we get.” Offering a full rationale for the statement over the course of a blog post (exec summary: you probably don’t interact with the majority of your colleagues daily anyway. If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got everything you need), he concluded by stating that the only thing holding us to the traditional office construct is “someplace to go. Once someone figures that part out, the office is dead.”

There’s already evidence to suggest that some people are figuring that part out. A recent Businessweek piece reports on a group of people who have managed to move at least part of their working lives to the beach.  But as the piece itself points out, such people “are still rare enough that no agency tracks the phenomenon.”

Despite that, the Businessweek article does suggest that Godin is correct in one respect: that there is a certain type of worker who is capable of getting the work done regardless of their location. With that being the case, why not let them work wherever they feel they can get it done best?

The answer to that question—and to the importance of the office as a whole—lies in the sense of community. Sure, it might be possible to communicate with whomever you need to within your company by phone and email, but doing so exclusively takes a toll on everyone involved. Consider how much worse the average call center employee is treated compared to someone in a direct customer-facing position. The reason: it’s much easier to dehumanize someone if you don’t have to deal with them face to face.

Therein lies the true importance of the office—and the real reason that it’s not going anywhere soon, no matter the advances in collaboration software and technology.
Sure, that commute might be the bane of your existence, but consider the good that can come out of bumping into a colleague in the hallway, or stopping by someone’s desk for a quick chat. Many’s the business issue that has been solved from an otherwise casual starting point. Take that away, and you lose a large part of whatever collaborative spirit exists within your workforce at present.

Throughout history, people have naturally gravitated towards the concept of community, and have tended to create living spaces at both the individual and community level that allow for congregation. The office is merely an extension of this tendency. And, with companies being nothing more than hand-picked communities, it behooves leaders to do all they can to ensure that those people feel as connected to one another as possible.

The problem with questions such as the one at the top of this blog, and opinions like Godin’s, is that they encourage people to think of themselves as autonomous units. You might be able to do the same type and quality work anywhere. You might not need your colleagues around, or be quite happy communicating by email. But they might not, and may even think that having their colleagues around them is something of a perk.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t be flexible in figuring out working arrangements—the benefits it has for employee happiness and wellbeing are well documented. But so, too, is the importance of strong communities and people feeling invested in the people they work with. (Plus: how would most of us ever meet prospective partners?) For that reason, the office isn’t going anywhere, no matter how much fantasizing we do.


One Response

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  1. This is a hard one because there are definitely benefits to working with others on a day to day basis. It’s nice to have the interaction that the office can provide. The big problem is when you spend the day in the office, but don’t actually talk to anybody. That makes you feel isolated and like you’re wasting your time commuting.

    I’d like to see more companies offering office space for employees, but not requiring them to come in. Get your job done in whatever setting works best for you.


    June 1, 2011 at 2:35 pm

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