In praise of the office.

Are you dressing down (again) with nowhere to go?

We feel and work better when we can connect with others within the workplace. Pic: Austin Distel.

Bringing people together

When office dwellers start working remotely, one study found, a vicious cycle ensues that voids the office of meaning even for those who remain there. The fewer people show up, the harder it is to show up.

The point of the office, this research suggests, is not to make people more productive. It is to bring them together.

The most successful amongst lone workers, in fact, invested heavily in cultivating the kinds of connections that most offices provide as a bundle: connections to people, to a place to work, to a standard practice, and to a larger purpose.

Those connections provided the focus required to keep working, the boundaries necessary not to work all the time, and the courage needed to do one’s best work.

In doing so, they kept performance and existential anxieties at bay, helping people stay productive without being consumed by their work.

Furthermore, because they were curated, rather than found in a managed bundle, those connections made precarious work feel more personal. They were, in short, an office of one’s own.

For some, there’s no place like home.

Workers who swore that they preferred the work of making their office, rather than going to the office, seemed to be chasing mastery over their working lives.

They rejected the constraints of jobs, careers, and, most of all, management. But when it came to “the office,” they would rather shift its meaning than do away with it entirely: from the extension of an organisation, to a sanctuary for one’s work; from a stage where they had to enact a role scripted by others, to a space that allowed them to embody their work.

The productivity fixation and the anxiety it elicits

When I read reports of executives who have been inspired to make these moves by the boost in productivity they witnessed while people worked from home, I bristle. And I wish that we researchers said more than “We knew it already.”

Of course we did. We also knew that those productivity boosts are often due to increased anxiety.

But I have yet to hear one CEO declare, “I am grateful for our employees who stayed productive during a pandemic, even more so than usual.

I am only sorry that many will have done so for fear of losing their jobs, of being forgotten, or of letting the company down in a crisis. I regret it if you found yourself at home, flooded with messages and tasks, and you just kept panic-working. We must find ways to stop that.”

Are we getting more freedom in return?

So far, remote work seems to be an opportunity to move workers to digital workplaces whose real estate tech companies own and surveil with alacrity. On those platforms, many of us now work without offices and for invisible managers.

In the officeless workplace, management has not gone away, courtesy of digital tools that monitor workers constantly, often on behalf of the managers whose need for creative interactions requires that they still come to a spacy office instead.

Those who profit from the time we spend at home, obsessing about being productive, glued to our screens, may well be cheering.

In the officeless future, fewer people will distract us from our apps, if only to remind us that there are cupcakes in the office kitchen.

Many more people will reach us through our screens. But will they see us?

Will remoteness fulfill the promise of humanizing work, or will it mechanize it further? I am not sure.

All I know is that we may miss the office, and managers too, when we are all working for algorithms, from home or on the road, dependent on our screens, and at the constant mercy of the market.

This edited and abridged (by Seated Massage) article written for HBR by Gianpiero Petriglieri.

Read the full article here.

Gianpiero is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, Gianpiero researches and practices leadership development. He directs the INSEAD Management Acceleration Programme, as well as leadership workshops for global organizations.