“What will it take to encourage much more widespread reliance on working at home for at least part of each week?” asked Frank Schiff, the chief economist of the US Committee for Economic Development, in The Washington Post in 1979.
Four decades on, we have the answer.
But COVID-19 doesn’t spell the end of the centralised office predicted by futurists since at least the 1970s.
The organisational benefits of the “propinquity effect” – the tendency to develop deeper relationships with those we see most regularly – are well-established.
The open-plan office will have to evolve, though, finding its true purpose as a collaborative work space augmented by remote work.
If we’re smart about it, necessity might turn out to be the mother of reinvention, giving us the best of both centralised and decentralised, collaborative and private working worlds.
Organisational culture, not technology, has long been the key force keeping us in central offices.
“That was the case in 1974 and is still the case today,” observed the “father of telecommuting” Jack Nilles in 2015, three decades after he and his University of Southern California colleagues published their landmark report Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. “The adoption of telework is still well behind its potential.”
But it has taken a pandemic to change the status quo – evidence enough of culture resistance.
In his 1979 article, Schiff outlined three key objections to working from home:
how to tell how well workers are doing, or if they are working at all
employees’ need for contact with coworkers and others
too many distractions.
To the first objection, Schiff responded that experts agreed performance is best judged by output and the organisation’s objectives. To the third, he noted: “In many cases, the opposite is likely to be true.”
But the second argument – the need for personal contact to foster close teamwork – is harder to dismiss.
There is evidence remote workers crave more feedback.
As researchers Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber note in their Harvard Business Review article The Truth About Open Offices, published in November 2019, “one of the most robust findings in sociology – proposed long before we had the technology to prove it through data – is that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction”.
Waber’s research at the MIT Media Lab demonstrated the probability that any two workers will interact – either in person or electronically – is directly proportional to the distance between their desks. In his 2013 book People Analytics he includes the following results from a bank and information technology company.
- ^ The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ in 2015 (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow (dl.acm.org)
- ^ 50 years of bold predictions about remote work: it isn't all about technology (theconversation.com)
- ^ workers (www.businessinsider.com.au)
- ^ managers (theconversation.com)
- ^ Informal feedback: we crave it more than ever, and don't care who it's from (theconversation.com)
- ^ The Truth About Open Offices (hbr.org)
- ^ People Analytics (www.humanyze.com)
- ^ workers hated (www.wired.com)
- ^ MIT Libraries (dome.mit.edu)
- ^ CC BY-NC (creativecommons.org)
- ^ placement of bathrooms (www.independent.co.uk)
- ^ Jason Pratt/Flickr (www.flickr.com)
- ^ CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org)
- ^ 20 to 50 (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ As coronavirus restrictions ease, here's how you can navigate public transport as safely as possible (theconversation.com)
- ^ hand sanitising (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ Vital Signs: rules are also signals, which is why easing social distancing is such a problem (theconversation.com)
- ^ Goodbye to the crowded office: how coronavirus will change the way we work together (theconversation.com)
Authors: Andrew Wallace, Program director of Interior Architecture, University of South Australia