In defence of the office

Over the years I’ve written countless articles about new ways of working and they’ve all focused on the practical, tangible stuff – the buildings, the furniture and how the workplace itself has adapted to support people in their shiny new flexible world. I touched on culture change a fair bit, particularly looking at how the ‘management by presenteeism’ culture tended to be eschewed in favour of measuring people by their actual performance.

But what I hadn’t fully appreciated is the internal journey someone goes on when they learn to work intelligently, flexibily or whatever the latest buzzword becomes. We ask people to give up their desk stuffed with memorabilia, pedestals full of even more ‘stuff’ –their history – and give them a laptop and a range of ‘flexible working solutions’ and then tell them to get on with it.

Some organisations recognise what we’re asking of staff and do provide training in new ways of working, but many don’t  –  the budget’s all gone on the funky furniture and the workplace consultants.

And, as a result, many people struggle. They find that without the structure of day-to-day office life, they can’t manage their time properly, can’t discipline themselves to work and get distracted by other ‘stuff’. They miss the buzz of the office, and the familiarity it brings. And they find, because perhaps they haven’t got to grips with the new technology, that they can’t locate important files or connect to that key person. They find that without the workplace they can’t work – or at least not as well.

For people who work alone, or as part of a virtual team, it’s even worse. A while ago a senior consultant told me about someone who he’d employed who, after six months, admitted they found it very tough NOT to work in an office. They missed the possibilities that office life provides in abundance: to chat or not to chat; to have a quick impromptu meeting; to pop out at lunch with someone; or for a drink after work; to bump into colleagues in other departments or get the chance for that chat in the lift with the the big boss over from the US. That’s office life and when we dismiss the office as being something a bit naff and rather yesterday, we forget the essential role it fulfills as a social, as well as a work, hub.

As for me, after almost 20 years going to a defined place to work (whether that be old people’s home, library,  pub, shop or office) I’m now working from home most of the time. I didn’t have my first ‘work’ conversation until 10am today and I got a huge amount done with only the hamster to talk to. But I wouldn’t want to do it everyday. Tomorrow I go back into a workplace – albeit not my own – for a client meeting and I’m looking forward to it.  But there was one particular person I missed more than any other – IT support.  It suddenly dawned on me that when my computer struggles (and as a result I struggle) then the only person with the answer is me – or my ability to find the answer from the numerous online forums created by people for whom IT support is not an extension number but a virtual network of thousands of like-minded souls with similar problems.

Cathy Hayward