The office

As more companies are moving back to the office as the default place to work, I’m seeing more thought pieces critical of in-person work as the default working arrangement.

Here are two examples from bloggers whom I respect:

  1. Cloud-work vs. Land-work by Dave Rupert
  2. Management with intent by Seth Godin

From Rupert:

As companies start to force people back to the office, I find myself coming back to this Cloud-work vs. Land-work dynamic. Is collaboration on land that much better than on the cloud? Is it about removing distractions? Is it because the leadership is ineffective at managing cloud-workers? Is this a means of control and surveillance? Are hallway crossings the key to fostering innovation? What about the cloud-work job requires it to be land-work?

From Godin:

If a manager says, “the only way I can create connections, loyalty and a sense of purpose is to force people to shlep to an office every day,” they’re being lazy. Surely we can come up with something better than simply taking attendance.

As knowledge work has shifted to a remote-first setting, organizations have generally done an astonishingly bad job of bringing any intent at all to how they will build a culture that they care about. Forcing people to show up so they can hide behind a screen in the office is lazy.

The argument is largely that if a job can physically be done remotely, it should be done remotely. Requiring physical presence in order to motivate people, create a common culture or simply get things done is a sign of poor management and leadership skills.

Of course there are bad managers out there who rely on looking over your shoulder in the office. But that’s not the only thing going on here.

Both of these gentlemen are in the consultant, freelancer, entrepreneur camp. Most of the other that I see making strong, good faith arguments for remote work are senior specialists. None of them benefit from being in the office. But I’m hesitant to extrapolate that experience to everyone who does “cloud-work”.

A lot has been written about the benefits of in-person, spontaneous interactions. Many of my best professional contributions started out as a random wild idea over lunch or a coffee. This doesn’t replicate remotely.

Much of the learning that junior specialists do is via informal mentorships. Something about scheduling a virtual call to do some informal and spontaneous mentoring doesn’t work as well.

Many of us also need the physical space of the office. Having to rent or buy a larger apartment isn’t always that straightforward, especially for more junior employees who tend to earn significantly less.

I could go on, but the last, and perhaps most important point, is that humans have spent thousands of years working in close proximity to each other. Changing that overnight is going to be difficult for many.

There are a few more reasons supporting remote work that I often see trotted out, but I think they are more tied to bad public policy.

  1. Commuting is awful. I agree, but this is because of poor infrastructure. The solution is cutting suburban sprawl and building better public transportation.
  2. Real estate is too expensive where the good jobs are. Also, 100% true but this is because of poor zoning laws, missing middle housing, too much regulation stifling development and real estate becoming a sort of pension investment.
  3. Childcare. Also valid, but the same is also true that lack of government kindergartens and poor parental leave polices are the root of the problem.

I get it that remote work help relieve the pressure on these symptoms, and my own opinion is that companies should explore as much flexibility as possible. That said, let’s not get carried away and get rid of thousands of years of human history for the sake of a few, hopefully, short-term policy failings. Completely destroying the office as an intellectual hub isn’t the right response to the failed urbanism of the past generation.