As covid-19 has become less of a threat in recent months, companies have tried different ways to get people back to the office. Some have beautified the physical environment or proposed benefits like onsite child care. Many have stressed how vital it is to collaborate in person. Some have simply ordered their staff to return a certain number of days a week.
It’s not enough to make people like the office—or even show up to it.
Employees who, before the pandemic, dutifully trooped in five days are resisting the call, forcing some corporate leaders to backtrack. JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon—previously one of the CEOs most insistent on return to the office—said in a May investor letter (pdf) that 40% of the bank’s staff would likely mix office time with home working from now on, and another 10% “in very specific roles” will likely work from home full time.
What the office means now
One big reason employees are resisting the return to the office is that they have become used to the flexibility forced on so many during the pandemic. They feel like they work more efficiently from home, an impression that research backs up. Fitting together the disparate responsibilities of work, care, exercise, and personal admin still isn’t easy, but removing both daily commutes and constant presenteeism frees up so much time that people are simply refusing to be pushed back into workplaces.
But there’s another driver of our refusal to return, more subconscious but also powerful: No one loves the office.
There might be exceptions: Particularly delightful work cultures housed in temperate, light-flooded rooms; people whose life circumstances mean they take true, sustained pleasure in leaving home for the day and pursuing an intellectual challenge elsewhere. But for the most part, offices lack either of the two fundamental things we need to promote love of place: They’re not absolutely necessary, and they don’t make us feel free.
Necessary spaces might not be beautiful or even pleasant, but they’re imbued with vitality because the activity that happens there couldn’t happen anywhere else. Hospitals, schools, police stations, government buildings, courtrooms, gardens, zoos, swimming pools, and even shops are all places that can inspire strong emotions. Of course, not everyone loves these buildings or spaces, and some surely hate them with a passion, but it’s possible for them to make us feel passionate because there’s an appreciation of places that are suited to their function: Saving lives, caring for animals, community.
But while an office worker might love their work, their colleagues, or their mission, the office itself doesn’t have much to do with any of that.
Offices, for the most part, are not necessary. Maybe they were once were, when the types of clerical work they’re used for called for physical paper, objects, and meeting in rooms. But technology gradually removed that necessity; for most white-collar workers, most tasks can now be accomplished using a mix of readily-available online tools. Asynchronicity—people working on the same thing but not at the same time—was arguably the last big change needed, and it’s happened.
Competing with the office
Other spaces we love are those we choose: Cafés, art galleries, parks. These are places we decide to spend time because they make us feel happy, whether because of the decor, or the atmosphere, or simply because of the feeling that we’re exercising our autonomy. Increasingly, offices have tried to replicate these types of spaces, adding blond wood tables and Eames chairs, soft lighting, music, plants, and coffee machines. But the feeling isn’t the same, because the leisure and joy we feel at a cafe, or at home, will never be the same at an office.
The idea that offices are necessary to ensure that workers work has been exposed as a charade by the pandemic. The companies gripping onto it might be doing so to keep tabs on employees or to feel like they’re getting a return on expensive building leases. But it’s hard to argue that workers need to be physically together when they just spent two years doing their jobs more or less unsupervised. However pleasant an office environment may be, it’s now contending with our own homes.
With the necessity gone and the impossibility of replicating true liberty, the office is not going to recover from covid. We will continue to have offices, to use them for the things they facilitate: Meetings, mentoring, focus. But we will never fall back in love with them because, as many of us now know, we never loved them in the first place.