Forward To The Past
Journalists and commentators are excitable folk who live within a bubble of the permanent present. Knowing nothing of history, nor in fact of anything much at all, media types reliably imagine the future by simply extrapolating in a straight line from whatever transient circumstances happen to exist at the moment they are doing their prognosticating.
Not surprisingly, the value of these prognostications is almost always very slight indeed.
As far back in time as most people can remember (e.g. two months ago) all the chatter was about the future of work being a blend of work-from-home with one or two days per week spent in the office. I was skeptical, because everything I know about human nature tells me that people cling to the most worthless anachronistic behaviors with a tenacity that would put a limpet to shame. People who have spent their careers striving for a slightly better office will not willingly surrender the shreds of status they have worked so desperately hard to attain. Hence I was fairly certain that despite all the ebullient chatter about how our currently fashionable coronapanic has changed everything, in reality we’ll all rapidly return to how things were before.
And so, alas, it is transpiring.
Personally, I would love to see a more rational world in which work-from-home is not only accepted but encouraged. It not only yields far higher productivity than office-bound toil but also enables a far better life-work blend. It reduces corporate expenses by eliminating tens of millions of dollars of lease payments. And it reduces the amount of unnecessary pollution caused by hundreds of millions of people commuting each day.
Unfortunately, we humans are basically stupid, and being stupid we rarely stumble even by accident into wise decisions.
Hence we see CEOs like Tim Cooke and Jes Staley telling the world that they want their cubicle slaves back in the office as soon as coronapanic regulations are unwound. Their supposed reasons for this are risible.
Most commonly cited are variants of the “water cooler inspiration” fairytale whereby corporate innovation supposedly depends largely on serendipitous meetings of random employees, which can of course only occur if those employees are back in the office. Not only is it glaringly obvious that any company which depends on chance encounters for its innovation is a company no one should invest in nor work for, but it’s also equally obvious that companies wanting to cram employees back into dreary cubicles five days per week are also companies that will reliably crush any attempts at grass-roots innovation, citing all manner of corporate policies that are designed explicitly to constrain such potentially subversive activities and ensure people conform as required.
The only reason backward-looking companies like Apple, Barclays Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, etc. used to have suggestion boxes into which naïve employees could drop their ideas scribbled on pieces of paper was because it was the cheapest way for those companies to supply their corporate lavatories. Corporate jets are expensive and so costs must be cut where it makes most sense. There is only one occasion on which employee ideas are welcome, and that’s when a senior executive can appropriate them and claim all credit for themselves.
Speaking of jet aircraft, we can deduce another powerful motivator for executives commanding their lowly peons to return to the office. What is the point of having a corporate jet at one’s disposal, or at the very least a travel policy than ensures senior executives always travel First Class, when everyone is working from home and so there’s no rationale to jet away somewhere in order to escape one’s unsatisfying domestic life and break the monotony with some all-expenses-paid fun elsewhere? Getting people back into the office creates a reason to travel once again, and frankly that’s sufficient to re-impose the energy-sapping commute, disrupt people’s domestic arrangements, and kill productivity. After all, shareholders probably won’t notice for a few quarters so where’s the harm?
A few optimistic folk hold out hope that despite the general edict to return to the cube farms, some companies will still permit their peons to work from home one or two days per week. But that’s like hoping we can be half-born or half executed. As soon as people are back in the office, they’ll have to be back five days per week because meetings will be scheduled on that assumption, managers will naturally promote those who are present because “out of sight, out of mind,” and “impromptu” all-hands meetings will likewise ensure that the illusion of any ability to work-from-home will rapidly evaporate.
Which is tremendously sad.
The office was the nineteenth century’s answer to the need for centralized data processing. When ledgers had to be passed from hand to hand, the office was the only viable solution. But although a chronic lack of historical awareness and an abject lack of imagination mean most CEOs aren’t aware of the fact, the office has been a temporary and very unwholesome expedient. Now that we have telecommunications technologies that permit people to work from anywhere there’s an adequate internet connection, the office has as much relevance to white-collar work as does the ability to saddle a horse.
It’s true that a minority of cube slaves actually want to return to work, either because they want to escape their home life or because they have no other social life. But these are grotesque reasons to impose a return to the office. If someone is unhappy with their domestic situation they should take action to change it, not run away from it for ten hours each day. And likewise if someone has such a meagre social life that being physically proximate to colleagues one hardly knows is the nearest thing they have, once again the real solution is not to seek a pathetic surrogate but to address the problem at root.
With a return to the daily commute looming into view, it becomes painfully apparent that we’ve learned absolutely nothing whatsoever from our period of media-induced hysteria. Which means not only will we be doing it all over again remarkably soon, but also that the pointlessness of office-based work will remain a weight around our necks for at least a few more decades.