I love going into the office so much that even when I was unemployed I kept an office.
In the early 2010s, on the sixth floor of the Nicholas Building in central Melbourne, four of us paid $25 each a week for a large, very cold room that overlooked the Flinders Street station clocks.
I went into the office each day for a whole range of reasons: structure, community, inspiration, the fellowship of my fellow underemployed freelancers, leads from them about work, to test pitches of my stories, to subedit copy (we passed our work around to be checked by one another) and the magic itself of the office building.
It was an unusual building, with rents kept strangely low – supporting fringe concerns, like a shop that just sold buttons. In the studio next to us was a nocturnal artist who started work at 6pm. There were two lift operators (one of whom had been there for 22 years and decorated the elevator with flowers and photos; she was later memorialised in a Courtney Barnett song) until they too lost their jobs.
The point being that even when you barely have a job, it’s great to have an office.
Yet one of the changes most anticipated post-pandemic is a permanent move away from the office.
This would be a grave mistake.
To condemn people to working from their homes is to shut off a vital flow of social capital, friendship, community, creativity and the exchange of ideas that happen naturally in an office. Without these things we can get our work done but we can’t innovate or take our thinking and outcomes to the next level.
The global economy has long been driven by key major cities where workers migrate to work from a central hub (think Silicon Valley, or how much of Australia’s media industry is concentrated in Sydney). According to decades of research by urban theorists including Richard Florida and economic geographers including Michael Stroper, the human interactions and connections made in real spaces with density, such as offices and hub cities, lead to interaction and connection, which then lead to innovation.
Dispersing the workforce to homes across the country – as many of the major tech companies are doing – will save companies rent money but in the long term could cost them dearly when it comes to creativity and innovation.
A year ago I was on a hike with a founder of a high-end chain of Australian co-working spaces. He told me much thought had been put into the design and layout of the offices to encourage serendipitous encounters in communal spaces.
These encounters would lead to conversations and connections and this is how new ideas form and thorny problems are solved. The founder wanted a mix of people from different disciplines to work in the office, so someone with a sports administration background might bump into someone working in microfinance and they start talking – and maybe their conversation might extend into completely new and exciting realms that they wouldn’t have reached had they been in home offices alone.
Steve Jobs, who was anti-work from home, said of the joys of the office: “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say, ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
How do you run an idea past someone if you are working at home alone? It’s easy in an office space just to swivel your chair around and talk to the person behind you. But some things feel too slight or vague to schedule a meeting, so the idea gets shelved. It’s a shame, a spontaneous conversation could have moved the idea along. It could have become something.
For company or interaction at home, lonely workers may turn to social media such as Twitter but the platform’s current vibe errs on the side of cutdown and snark rather than uplift and collaborate. Even platforms designed to bring employees together such as Zoom are badly designed for chaotic or tentative conversations.
If someone wants to make a quip or an aside, that just might contain that fleck of gold, they have to unmute themselves, and is it really worth the bother?
So where to from here?
Workers will still need to gather, and not for innovation alone, but for fellowship and friendship.
A typical week in the life of a post-pandemic office worker might look like two days a week in the office for meetings, ideas and collaboration, while the three days of work at home might be more intensive work that requires silence and focus.
Or maybe something new – something innovative – will come along and surprise us.
Just as urban theorists, such as Jane Jacobs in the 1960s and now Florida and others, asked us to reimagine cities and density in a different way, as a place of serendipity, innovation and intellectual and creative fermentation, I’m hoping there is a new generation of software developers and possibility geographers, demographers or urban theorists collaborating on a new digital version of the city.
In this imagined city, there’d be chance encounters with people that push along your ideas and help you grow. There’d be the digital equivalent of swivelling in your chair to quickly chat to your clever co-worker.
There’d be room for people who were different from you, but inspired you and made you see things from other directions, like the nocturnal artist or the lift operator from my Nicholas Building days.
But how would you create such a disruptive, dazzling, imaginative new platform when you’re at home, all alone?