Should the office be the default workplace?

Jeremy Hunt said this week that he thought the office should be the default workplace for many workers because it is better for creativity and collaboration, but, while there are some good things about the office or about face to face work generally, does that mean it should be the gold standard?



There is somewhat of a myth being created about office working of late that comes at a time when more and more companies are increasing the number of days people have to spend in the office, almost as if the big Covid experiment never happened. The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt contributed to this this week in his speech to a¬†British Chambers of Commerce conference where he said that offices should be the default option because he worried about the ‘loss of creativity’ when people are permanently working from home. The so-called water cooler moments that I, for one, have never experienced in decades of working life. I think I can safely say that no major creative idea has ever come up when I have got myself a glass of water or even done the tea round.

I wish they would stop with the water cooler cliche, although I guess what he’s getting at are the spontaneous moments of interaction and conversation that might lead to new ideas. I don’t think they are as common as is made out, though – which is not to say that collaboration and creativity don’t come out of [planned] face to face meetings or social events.

There is a tendency to pick extremes in the remote vs office working debate and, of course, there are good things and bad things about each, although the balance seems to be firmly tipped against remote working for now. For instance, what is often missing when working remotely is the more human stuff – the conversations about daily life and worries which don’t tend to happen on a Zoom meeting.

What I object to is the mythologising of the office as a bastion of collaboration and creativity. This is despite the fact that the most creative people – artists, writers and the like – tend not to work in an office. It’s true that their work doesn’t tend to involve collaboration, but face to face meetings can occur anywhere.

I used to hot desk at one of my jobs. I was always struck going into the office how quiet it was; how little interaction took place. Everyone is plugged into their music or whatever and you feel like you are disturbing them or those around them if you try to initiate a conversation. The most interesting conversations I had were in cafes or other venues – or walking to them.

Face to face meetings can definitely be a good thing, though, although they suit some more than others. It’s the stereotypes that don’t serve anyone well – the characterisation of remote working [which doesn’t necessarily need to be from home], by default, as uncreative, uncollaborative and bad for our mental health – as somehow lesser than office working – doesn’t take into account different people’s preferences and experiences. For many commuting five days a week and being forced to play office politics – a game which favours certain groups – is not great for their mental health. Sitting in endless meetings dominated by the usual voices in a window-less concrete block often doesn’t encourage creativity.

Collaboration can be done in many different ways – lots of AI nerds are probably working on improvements as we speak, harnessing what science tells us about how our brains work best. There are different ways of being and working possible – and nothing is the finished article. Both office working and remote working can be improved and must be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Moreover, so many people don’t have the option of remote working, either because their job doesn’t suit it or their employer is opposed, which the myth-making articles and comments will only solidify. Having the ability to flex the way you work is and can be life-changing for many people who might otherwise not be able to work at all or have to work reduced hours.¬† Returning to rigid patterns due to a relentless office PR campaign and perpetuating the idea that flexible [remote] working is less good affects a lot of people. We need to question all aspects of how we work in order to find what works best for the widest range of people possible.

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