For all of the talk about transformation and innovation, France remains a very traditional country when it comes to work. The coronavirus lockdown that forced everyone to experiment with remote working was lifted back in May. By September, fully 84% of salaried workers were back in the office. This is a blatant separation from other countries in Europe like the UK where that is the case for less than half of the working population.
If only it could be shrugged off as a sort of French laissez-faire attitude: the virus is just like the flu and so we must not cow before such an unworthy foe. But this is not the case. Old habits die hard, and for the people in charge, they simply do not have confidence in their workforces to embrace working remotely. While individual collaborators have reported increases in productivity (from not commuting, being less distracted by conversations at the water cooler, and being able to turn off messaging notifications when they need to get some actual work done) managers have reported a perceived dip in team productivity.
It is true that what could once have been a question over a shoulder to a coworker behind you is turned into an email or a message on Teams. Managers who are used to commanding the conversation see that as a negative, but is it really bad for productivity? When a manager asks a question out of the blue they expect an answer. They seldom see if the person who is being asked the question is working on something else, which of course they are. This represents an interruption to productivity for the worker. From an organizational level perspective then productivity probably evens out.
If productivity is off the table as a legitimate reason, why are businesses so keen to force people back? Is it because the office space they rent is very expensive and so the fewer people that are there, the lower the ROI of having it? Is it because they fear that people not seeing each other will erode team cohesion and make it more difficult to act as one? Unfortunately I do not believe that this is the case. I believe that managers do not have confidence in their teams. In France it is true that it is nearly impossible to fire employees, especially for a perceived dip in performance. At least someone at the office can be bothered on demand. But there are just as many ways to not work at the office as to not work at home.
What is an office?
On the surface the idea of the office is very clear: it’s where people go to work on projects that when put together make up how a business is run. Take away the “where people go” part and what is really missing? People working on projects that when put together make up how a business is run. The “where” in the first phrase is actually a relatively new idea.
Offices were first extensions of factories where managers worked on paper to record things like payrolls. The office was centralized because paper is physical. Up until the digital revolution and the Information Age, people had to be together to collaborate efficiently. Then digital came along and over the past few decades the transformation towards digital has been unrelenting. It would be absurd to a steel mill manager in 1890 that I would be writing this by tapping my thumbs on a piece of glass before sharing it to humanity as a whole without ever touching ink or paper. He might also make the logical conclusion: if you can do all that fancy stuff, what the hell are you doing shlupping yourself to an office?
Collaboration tools are so ubiquitous today that we use them all day in the office. Infrastructure between 4G and fiber optic internet make the transition from an office building to the rest of the world seamless. There are no more technical barriers to connected collaboration in some professions.
So while to living generations the idea of the office is ingrained, it will be nothing but an abnormal blip on the radar of the history of human toil.
The shift to open spaces from individual offices has made it harder for many people to work. Absenteeism is up across the board. When I am sitting in the open space I am a magnet inviting anyone with a question about digital to come up and ask me. In order to appear nice and thoughtful I have to stop working in order to accommodate their question. The question can spiral out of control into other subjects. Before you know it I have completely lost track of what I was workin on. To compensate I have to go hide myself on other floors or in meeting rooms in order to produce the deliverables that I’m paid for. The tenet that open spaces enhance collaboration might be true, but it is also true that collaboration can turn into distraction in the blink of an eye.
In the connected sphere, I control when I answer someone’s email or their Teams message. I can choose to answer the phone or not and need not provide any explanation as to why I didn’t answer. I can nurture and protect my workflows to maximize my productivity.
And lo doth distraction inhabit the office! Put a bunch of people in a large open space and watch how the social hierarchy constructs. You don’t need to be a fan of a reality TV show like The Island when you have the third floor! The guy who talks way too loud. The woman who eats tuna salads at her desk for lunch. The two who are failing to keep their affair a secret because they constantly flirt across their desks. The VP who comes down to make an announcement. Your manager who marches into a meeting with HR… You know the drill, it’s as ingrained in popular culture as it is in the minds of the C-suite.
Plus did anyone mention that there is a deadly respiratory virus running rampant around the world? That we have to wear masks all day no matter where we are in the office? My ears hurt.
None of this supports the argument that offices improve productivity. They do quite the opposite. I’m not a business owner, but when I am, I’m going to tell my managers to stop being slaves to recent history. Let’s take a long hard look at what productivity really means, and let’s find the gall to make the change. We will all be better off for it.