For & Against: The death of the office?

By Matthew Oulton & August Liljenberg


MATTHEW OULTON ARGUES IN FAVOUR


The UK’s long trial of working from home will undoubtedly lead to a change in the way we work. After months of a commute from the bedroom to the kitchen and back, countless employees have no desire to go back permanently. Employers, many of whom have been overinvested in expensive city real estate for a long time, now have an excuse to reduce their high office costs. The end of the office may well be nigh.


The end of the office has one immediately obvious benefit – the end of a commute. The TUC reports that the average Brit spends just shy of an hour each day travelling between work and home. This unpaid and unproductive time has been eliminated from the workday of most people, and we should only add it back if it’s genuinely going to add an extra hour’s worth of value. Most work can be done from home – the pandemic has proved that much – and where work can’t be done from home, travelling to a different location should be a conscious decision, not a default. Companies should now look to make working at home the norm. Team building, pep talks, and disciplinaries may work better in person, and it’s good to get out of the house occasionally, but it’s not the only way to get work done. Not only would this ease the commute for those working from home, it would make our public transport and roads clearer for all travellers across the country.


Secondly, a significant reduction in the demand for city real estate will reduce the rents there. Not only would this benefit the millions of people renting or looking to buy in expensive cities, it would facilitate new businesses in city centres. The heart of cities might also be reinvigorated, with the departure of enormous corporates reducing rents enough to facilitate housing, restaurants, or clubs. Likewise, start-ups would be cheaper to found and company expansions cheaper.


As well as making city centre rents cheaper, a shift away from people working in one central office could also enable the spreading of prosperity through the country. Jobs that were previously available only to those living in city centres could be given to those in distant suburbs or towns, with long but only infrequent trips to a central location. Likewise, workers in the regions should now be able to access jobs that were exclusive to Londoners. A greener and more spacious living environment is therefore viable for everyone; where and how we live at present is heavily and unnecessarily constrained by where we work. It’s time for this to change.


A shift to a more modern way of working will not be without cost. Social interaction at work will be harder. Companies should look to put in place informal events and opportunities for new hires to get to know their colleagues. Travelling into the city once per month for a whole team meeting or a pub social, however, doesn’t require either the expense of an office or the daily grind of a commute.


Though working from home has been a revelation for many, for others it has been exceptionally difficult. Especially without childcare or in cramped accommodation, it can be hard to get work done at home. Companies, therefore, should help employees access space near to where they live, if they want it. Firms should help to finance home offices or co-working spaces, to offer workers a safe, well-equipped place to work, without a long commute. It would also help to offer workers some vital face-to-face interaction, but this doesn’t need to be with their own team. A manager can easily lead a team spread around a city – the pandemic has proved that much.


Finally, the switch away from a fixed physical location for all workers offers much more flexibility to employees. Parents who want to pick their children up from school wouldn’t need to leave the office, collect their children, and then return later – they could simply log on and log off from their home. Without the requirement for ‘office hours’, employees could work their job around their life. Tractability makes work easier for everyone, but it could, in particular, make it easier for those with caring responsibilities to remain in the job market.


Our cities are dominated by a skyline of large glassy offices. They’re laid out for a world in which people live in the suburbs and corporations live in the city centre. They’re designed for the days before the internet, computers, and mobile phones. Once, people had to travel from where they wanted to live to where they had to work. Technology has moved on - a future in which better access to amenities, lower rents, and better opportunities is possible. The death of the office can be the beginning of a 21st Century way to work.


AUGUST LILJENBERG ARGUES AGAINST


You are working from home again. Nationwide mandatory self-isolation. The time is 18:30, the 9-5 workday has ended – your corporate rhythm is in imbalance. You hear your work phone vibrate at the dinner table. 8-6 workday. No work Tuesdays. 9-4 workday with 30 emails to answer in designated non-work hours. You smile at how free you have become, Zoom, the almighty liberator of office torment.


The period of universal self-isolation and quarantine measures is luckily a figment of the past for most; companies are swiftly responding to social distancing relaxations, and the dreaded daily Zoom meeting is a foggy April memory. Despite many critics lauding the potential catalysing energy of distance working, a potential to envision new ways of approaching society’s relationship to work, analysing the office through the lens of French postmodernists Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, it becomes apparent that the office should be preserved, not discarded.


To understand how work is instrumentalised by society as a power mechanism – its ulterior purpose beyond the ‘work’ itself – we must turn to Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment. For Foucault, modernity is characterised as a disciplinary society, achieved through various institutions such as the school, workplace, or the prison, where hierarchical observation, normalising judgement (judging certain actions as normal or abnormal), and examination (the measurement of individuals to certain categories according to their results), are key in the power mechanism process. As such, the office can be interpreted as an adult tailored extension of the school: it instils a regimented format to the weekday (9-5), creates clear behavioural instructions between inferiors and superiors, and is likewise hegemonic in its universal applicability to an entire age-defined sector of the population. During and after the industrial revolution, the societal merits of socially organising along disciplinary lines as opposed to feudalist ones was realised. For Foucault, feudalism was a “society of sovereignty”, where production was taxed rather than organised – the production process largely up to the serf himself, limiting the disciplinary power needed to sustain industrial acceleration at the time being.


It is important to note that Foucault assumes that power exertion on citizens is an inevitable feature of living in society. The method with which this power is exerted and its character, however, is what is variable. This previous passage should not be read as an attack on disciplinary societies, but rather the description of the pre-pandemic status quo necessary to contrast modernity’s power mechanisms with those faced by postmodernity: societies of control.


Coined by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, postmodernity will be increasingly characterised by societies of control, where the physical enclosure of people is no longer necessary for the exercise of power and instead is dispersed, permeating all facets of society. Crucially, power mechanisms in societies of control are not immediately sensed as methods of control, but paradoxically, as exercises of freedom.


Online distance working is exactly vulnerable to such control mechanisms; with the erasure of a spatial distinction, the corporation and private life become merged into one metastable state, the employee exceedingly vulnerable to having not only his personal time appropriated by the company, but, also what sociologist Gideon Kunda labels as the “corporate colonisation of the self”. A move towards working exclusively from home risks not just our work/leisure distinction, but our identities as well. Sat docile before a computer screen, there is no reason for you not to answer the work-related email, to join the Zoom meeting, or write up one more report. The difference between the office and working from home is that when you’re in the office at least you know you’re at work.


Thus, rhetoric advocating towards consolidating online distance working, especially from companies and government officials, should be treated with harsh scepticism. Corporations will pursue the path of exerting more control over their employees if they can do so, especially if said employees believe that such a path will (wrongly) lead to an increase in freedom and leisure.


If we accept that power mechanisms are an inevitable result of living in a society, then we must strive to ensure that they are visible and distinct. Though we may not live in an age of public executions and serfdom, power is inescapable – the postmodern threat is that we ourselves become the agents of our own victimisation.


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