The Economist magazine’s online event Innovation@Work reflected the extraordinary changes in work practices that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. But I was left with a big question-mark over whether attitudes to staff have really changed at a deeper level.
Much of the discussion on “re-creating” the work experience in a virtual world assumed that the office was a model. In fact, as I made clear in my questions early during the event, this is anything but the case. Most companies have found that their staff do not want to return to the status quo ante — and it is obvious why!
Apart from a few designer offices that win prizes and attention because they break the mould, most office space in the middle of a city is depressingly cramped, resulting directly from high rental prices and a letting system that can only be called rapacious. Files often take up more space than the employees, furnishings are functional and sometimes threadbare, and the urge to not offend individual taste often results in a monochrome grey as the default decor. It feel like a scene from 1984 because it is a scene from that dystopia.
I was struck my how relaxed I have felt in Zoom meetings with people being in their own environments, rather than in the grey carpetted sterility of an office. Rather like seeing animals in the wild, in their own habitat, than in a zoo that has nothing to do with their personality.
I’ve also reflected on how deadened I became to the environment I was in when I was working up in London. The offices I’ve worked in were far from being the worst, usually with a few rental plants to give a token nod to nature, and with occasional hotel-style prints of paintings on the walls, punctuating the walls of electronic screens and TVs. But were any even remotely as engaging as the bookcases we see behind newsreaders on the televisions in our living rooms? Not by half.
Office architecture, at least as it has been designed in the decades since World War II, offer the same facade of power and authority as Egyptian temples or the statue of Ozymandias that Shelley wrote about in his poem. The huge logos, the towering ceilings, the rows of receptionists in the front hall, are all intended to be imposing and to create a sense of immensity and wealth. Rather like peacocks spreading the enormous fans of their iridiscent tails, the office is there to create an impression, of being well endowed, potent, virile.
The people within these monumental structures are more or less an aferthought. Once past the banks of receptionists and the plethora of lifts that blink their way from ground level ever higher, towards the exalted ranks of directors and finally — at the very top — the Boardroom, it feels a bit like looking through the wrong end of a teelscope. The giants become dwarves. A uniformity of scale is used to reflect rank, with all those of similar rank having the same size of desk and office, and promotion being defined by access to a bigger desk or office in a way that emphasizes that the slot a person occupies is more important than the person themselves.
It’s all very unlike the Zoom shots where you see an individual with the spare bedroom behind them, and the occasional joyful lapse when a child enters the picture unscripted! But would anyone in their right mind travel an hour, and perajps even two hours, in a crowded train or along a busy motorway to have that experience of the corporate office and all its ugliness? I doubt it, given half a chance.