Sarah Green Carmichael

What’s the Point of the Office Again?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with managers and employees about returning to the workplace. Behind every person’s individual concern is one overarching, almost philosophical conundrum: What’s the point of the office?

“That’s the right question,” says Alexandra Samuel, co-author of “Remote, Inc.” “And any organization that isn’t asking that question is going to run into trouble because every employee’s thinking it.”

It’s understandable. People worked from home — once derided as “shirking from home” — for a year, and the sky didn’t fall. In fact, people worked harder and became more efficient. Time once wasted on commuting was reallocated, and flexibility made it easier to pivot between work and life. Less time went to politicking and gossiping, and more time went to important work.

The office is primarily a social space, not a productive one. Most humans aren’t solitary, like snow leopards, but more like birds. The office provides a place to ruffle plumage and establish a pecking order.

Consider the experience of Consultant Connect, an Oxford, UK-based telehealth company. In the early days of the pandemic, despite CEO Jonathan Patrick’s qualms about remote work, productivity soared, and reports from workers were universally positive. As time went on, however, people started to miss socializing. “So you find yourself in this slightly odd situation, which is you’re running a company that is more productive when people work from home, but you’re missing out on quite a lot of the team-building stuff,” he said. They tried hosting Zoom socials but found them “a bit hit and miss.”

That’s not to say people go to the office to waste time. There’s value in getting together — it just doesn’t always equate with efficiency or productivity. It’s about creating a corporate culture or building trust among colleagues. Managers I spoke with said employees should get together in person for performance reviews, company parties, strategic planning, annual or quarterly off-sites, welcoming new employees, training colleagues, and resolving conflict. I heard only one reason — using special equipment — that lacked a social element.

Certain projects or tasks require a high degree of cooperation, and those might also be better accomplished in person. “We’re a technology company, and collaboration is super-important for what we do,” says Mark Harrington, CEO of Georgia-based OnSolve. “We’re getting more people asking, ‘When can I come back?’ as opposed to ‘Do I have to come back?’” Samuel, though an advocate for remote work, agrees that it’s not ideal for highly collaborative work: “If you have a day of seven zoom calls, you should be at the office.”

Almost all the managers mentioned that in-person work is important for creativity — it came up a lot — but here the evidence is mixed. “Actually, you can be very creative and innovative through videoconferencing and using all of these tools,” says Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley, author of “Remote Work Revolution.” She’s been studying teams that use the “agile” method, which involves quick, in-person stand-up meetings and sticky-note-covered whiteboards. “Pandemic hits. Uh oh! What happens? Agile teams are finding that they had to change how they worked. But the asynchronous time has increased their innovation.”

Brainstorming may not be the best use of the office, either. Groups sometimes generate more ideas if individuals brainstorm separately first and aren’t influenced by each other’s thinking or the subtle nods of approval from the highest-paid person.

Nor is the office necessarily ideal for heads-down, focused work. “You should pretty much get rid of every desk in the office,” says Samuel. “My feeling is that if you’re going to sit alone at a desk, stay home. There are jobs that are the exception, but in most cases, the point of the office is other people, and the point of home is focus.”

For what it’s worth, going to the office does provide an opportunity for signaling. Just as a power suit or statement necklace sends a signal, so does showing up in person. That’s true precisely because it’s costly. I put on these special clothes, sat for an hour in traffic and stopped by your desk to say hi. Look how much I care!

That’s one reason I don’t expect business travel to stay dormant for long. Yes, the cost savings are impressive — Google reportedly saved $1 billion during the pandemic, thanks to less travel and entertainment. And it never made sense to spend a day and a half traveling to a two-hour meeting. But a lot of return-to-normal pressure isn’t about what’s rational. All it takes is one competitor winning a valuable client in person, and the road warriors will be on the move again.

One benefit that may accrue to employees who return to the office is the chance to separate work life from home life. Those who’ve struggled to switch off while working remotely surely miss the boundary the office provides. “I like the bifurcation,” admits Harrington, and he’s hardly alone.

If returning to the office feels, at first, like a waste of time, remember that the point is not to be more productive. It’s to let colleagues (especially the ones who sign the paychecks) know we care.