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
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.