The Irish Times view on the modern office: into the 21st century

The office has resisted all disruption, but the pandemic is forcing change

Google has pulled out of plans to rent additional office space for up to 2,000 people in Dublin, but Facebook last month signed a new lease on a big block in Manhattan. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images

Google has pulled out of plans to rent additional office space for up to 2,000 people in Dublin, but Facebook last month signed a new lease on a big block in Manhattan. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images

 

They’re expensive to run, they take up a lot of space and the people who inhabit them complain about them endlessly, yet for the past 200 years, even as technology revolutionised the world of work, the office has resisted all disruption. Its original purpose, as a place where paper was processed, faded from the moment the PC appeared. Yet even as the wider trends of modern urban life – soaring city-centre rents, longer commuting times – threatened to make it obsolete, the office held on.

Working-from-home was widely dismissed as an ideology of daytime pyjama-wearers. In Silicon Valley, where early tech-utopians had imagined a world without offices, the biggest companies still built the biggest blocks of concrete-and-glass, seeing them – as did the industrial barons of the early 20th century – as monuments to their greatness (or their hubris).

Then came the pandemic. Almost overnight, cities were emptied of white-collar workers. Researchers differ on whether the home or the office is a more productive environment. Workers have mixed opinions, and companies themselves cannot agree on the long-term implications of the current shift: while Google has pulled out of plans to rent additional office space for up to 2,000 people in Dublin, Facebook last month signed a new lease on a big block in Manhattan. Trade unions must weigh the obvious benefits against fears that job security could be imperilled.

Having been forced into an experiment they long resisted, employers are seeing that much of the modern office was a 20th century relic. But the longer the office lies deserted, the more the costs become apparent. How to create a culture where the group no longer exists? How to train new hires? How to recreate the random moments – the chat over coffee, the overheard conversation – that so often produced new ideas? It’s too early to proclaim the death of the office. But perhaps we are entering an era of hybrid working, where people move between home and “hub”, where the office is less a place for repetitive toil than for creative thinking and collaboration.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.