When future social historians look back at the second half of the 20th century, they might well conceptualise it as the era of the office, immortalised in the lounge-suit and long-lunch lifestyles of Mad Men.
They will also note that even if the pandemic and great lockdown of 2020 accelerated its final demise, that the office ecosystem had been on life-support for more than a decade already; sustained in part by nostalgia and in part by those who remain heavily invested in it. That includes the human resources managers who peddle the myth of open-plan productivity; the restaurants, laundrettes and other services which rely on office traffic, and those whose pension and assets are locked into what they assumed was always going to be a safe bet—real estate and services in the wealthiest parts of town.
They will also diagnose that the office had been suffering from a number of debilitating ailments before Covid struck. Among the most important of them were increasingly arduous, expensive and environmentally unsound commutes for all but a few in senior management who could afford soaring inner city home prices.
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On top of that will be the growing evidence that office workers were far less engaged in their jobs because they increasingly found purpose in things they did outside of their workplaces, as well as the breakdown of once-traditional gender roles around work and childcare. Both men and women now feel increasingly torn between their work and their desire to be actively engaged in the day-to-day lives of their children.
Technology has disrupted work for good
But in the main they will identify the digital communications revolution as the principal cause of death. In doing so, they will compare it to other developments that radically reshaped our cities creating trauma for some but new opportunities and fortunes for those who were agile and astute enough to sniff opportunity when they detected a change in the tide. Like how widespread private motor vehicle ownership and the birth of the superstore killed off independent retail.
Up until the late 19th and early 20th century, offices were associated mainly with the bureaucratic organs of state and a handful of big companies. But as manufacturing became increasingly productive and profitable and businesses became increasingly bureaucratic, so the need for space to house them surged. More efficient and increasingly automated and productive manufacturing also had the effect of reducing the numbers of workers on factory floors. This resulted in the rise and rise of the ever more diverse services sector.
A century ago this accounted for only one in four jobs in the UK but it is now behind 80 per cent of all jobs and a similar proportion of Britain’s economic output. Many industries in the burgeoning services sector such as lawyers, insurance brokers, and advertisers had one absolutely critical requirement to exist: office space for their staff to work with one another, to meet, to talk and to pass memos around.
Impact on social lives
For many 20th-century office workers in large cities, their social lives merged with their working lives. Their workplace became their community. It was where they found friendship, a sense of belonging and often their spouses.
But with the advent of effective digital communication this all changed. Mobile telephony, email, and later communication platforms like Slack and Zoom meant that people in service industries that dealt mainly in information suddenly no longer needed to be in the same room as their colleagues.
It also started to diminish the social dominance of the office by providing the means for people to join global communities based on sometimes obscure interests. Where in the 80s an office-worker who was also a stamp-collector had to make do with meeting a handful of other enthusiasts at their local stamp-collecting club, now they have instant access to a huge 24/7 online global community of enthusiastic philatelists.
Initial resistance to remote working
With the means to work remotely, employers inevitably began to buckle to demands for more flexible working arrangements. But they didn’t always do so easily. HR managers fought back insisting that open-plan, mass-working boosted productivity and worker engagement. They warned that routine working from home would produce a workforce of demoralised dossers and freeloaders.
Perhaps ironically, it was the agents of the digital revolution who were among those who misread its implications in the workplace. They invested fortunes in transforming their offices into spaces that would be surrogates for people’s actual homes with gyms, sleep pods, fancy canteens and elaborate recreation spaces.
But now, after six months of lockdown, it is clear that in most cases working from home often boosted productivity and made employees more engaged. They were spared grim commutes and a sense of obligation to participate in what now appear quaint and time-consuming office rituals.
The office as a physical rather than virtual institution will of course not perish altogether – at least in the foreseeable future. And the work people do will always form part of their social lives forged on the sensate touch of celebrations and disappointments of working together towards common goals.
Beyond the chance to make central urban space more affordable for key-workers and others whose jobs can’t be done remotely, it offers us an opportunity to transform parts of our cities into far livelier spaces where people live, work and socialise unburdened by time wasted on odious commutes.