These days, the office is getting a bad press. The open spaces that now dominate leave little room for privacy and concentration. Rising real estate prices require companies to optimise their workspaces like never before. At the same time, employees, like freelancers, are increasingly favouring telecommuting, despite employers’ efforts to improve the quality of life at work. With the help of collaborative tools and the ease of access to the internet, some workers are going as far as abandoning the office altogether and adopting a “nomadic” lifestyle. Does this mean that the future spells doom for the office? Nothing is less certain.
In an economy made up of network effects and talent clusters, the office may actually remain an essential feature. In companies, the workspace is becoming more splintered and teams are more scattered. However, the office is becoming a hub, the centre of dialogue among colleagues.
Telecommuting has skyrocketed in France in the last two years: today nearly 30% of private-sector workers telecommute, according to the 2019 Malakoff-Médéric study; this is a 50% increase from 2017. But despite accounts by media that are fascinated by this phenomenon, digital nomads who never work at the office are still few and far between. The reality of telecommuting is that workers spend an average of seven days per month away from the office. In terms of both productivity and well-being, the optimal amount of telecommuting is around two days per week.
In Deep Work, a best seller published in 2016, Cal Newport argues that so-called deep work has become a rare commodity in our knowledge economy. However, in Newport’s view, it is impossible to engage in deep work at the office. It is true that concentration is necessary for writing computer code, finishing a report or writing an article. Yet deep work does not accomplish everything and is not equally important for all jobs. For instance, a manager must instead excel at “superficial” work, forge connections, create new rituals and connect the company’s various stakeholders in a network. And the office is where this work is done.
Anglo-Saxons speak of the water cooler effect in reference to the informal chatting that occurs among colleagues during breaks (the water cooler being the equivalent of the coffee machine in France). This informal dialogue plays a critical role in companies. It helps build the bonds that will later be the strength of the teams and which the corporate culture spreads. This is where well-being and quality of life at work truly play out. Supporters of telecommuting make no mistake about it: they know that, as social creatures, we need these rituals and time to engage in dialogue with others, and they ponder how to reinvent these principles.
We will not be able to settle for virtual discourse. Our workspace is becoming more and more splintered, spread between co-working spaces, cafés, home and office. But the office still has a bright future at the centre of this network of numerous spaces.