One of the biggest discoveries from the Coronavirus pandemic has been—how useless most office meetings are. In fact, it might as well be how useless the concept of the ‘office’ increasingly is.
As offices, tours, meetings, even countries shut down in what has now been declared a global pandemic, it is worth taking a moment to consider what we actually do in this space called the office.
The idea that one’s place of work and home are distinguishable from one another is a recent invention. Certainly, agrarian and even post-agrarian crafts-societies did not make such a clear distinction; and the tradition of living in a flat above the shop was an integral part of the consumerist age. In fact, even in the early 2000s, when I worked at an international news agency in Delhi during college, the bureau chief used to live in the flat beneath the office, where we sometimes saw his kids play in the garden.
Does coming to the office make us more productive? Certainly; research on our work-life suggests that the modern format of offices, the ‘open plan’, is an unmitigated disaster. Built to save companies space, and supposedly to trigger greater cohesion among employees, they are built to distract and designed for workplace subterfuge, where people spend more time trying to find out what their neighbour is doing rather than working themselves.
The utter lack of privacy which was once heralded as a symbol of transparency has left our work lives barren and raw; it is like living under a perpetual spotlight or on a reality TV show. There is a loss of any semblance of privacy or even a sense of space; new ideas suggest that no one should have designated places to sit, and working at the office should involve a perpetual revolving chair game.
The oddest thing about the modern office culture is that after doing all these things which essentially ensure that the employee gets little space to develop their niche attachment to the workplace, modern human resources insist on making employees play odd ‘games’ (sometimes start dancing in between the cubicles, bizarrely) to build ‘team spirit’. All very dramatic, and mostly ineffective.
The result of these ideas, added to the abysmal commute that most officegoers must face in most parts of the world, has been pushing the work-from-home idea for a long time. The arrival of a pandemic virus that has dramatically cut down human interaction is just the tipping point our noxious office culture needed.
What the overstretched, permanently anxious employee needs is greater peace and quiet and an ability to focus. Now, it may be argued that some employees do not need this and they thrive in the engendered insecurity that modern workspaces create. My argument, however, is that at a time when mental health is one of the biggest crisis in the world, a serious effort at providing work-from-home flexibility is not just humane, it could have an exponential impact on productivity. If we want a truly gender-balanced world, too, this kind of work-from-home flexibility is inevitable so that both men and women are available at home to share domestic chores equitably throughout the day.
The Coronavirus is an opportunity to rethink the modern office and its ecosystem. It is an opportunity to contemplate what would happen if we were to dramatically reimagine some of the fundamental contours of our work life as we have known it for a long time—the idea of the office.
This is an opportunity to think beyond the office and create a more harmonious and fruitful work-life balance. And that might start with the elimination of the office, at least in the current format.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.