Is the office obsolete?

Mike Mister, a Partner at PSFI, discusses whether in office working is essential or expendable and what the longer term effects might be from working in an increasingly remote environment.

Just going to pop into the office.  Doesn’t that sound quaint now?   It begs the really interesting question of why?

We are in the midst of a massive unplanned experiment in working practices – and the longer this “experiment” goes on, the less likely many people will go back to the office.  With the rapid adoption of technology to enable effective homeworking, some argue the concept of the office is redundant.

I was reminded the other day that Peter Drucker wrote – “commuting to an office to work is obsolete.  It is now infinitely easier, cheaper and faster to move information to where the people are.” This was in the Wall Street Journal in 1989!!    As ever the Great Sage of Management was prescient.

A recent review of the legal sector found many firms expecting they will never make a full return to their offices. Managing Partners are currently grappling with headcount quotas, one way systems, priority access and multi-phased returns to the office.

One thing of which I am sure is that for lots of knowledge workers “going to the office” will no longer be their default position.

I don’t want to initiate a debate on the pros and cons of remote working.  I have been fortunate to work in some simply stunning offices around the world in New York, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Moscow and London to name a few.  Nor do I want to speculate about what the office of the future might look like. I do specifically want to address the question of “Why do I need to go into the office?”

It seems that no one asking the obvious question – certainly not out loud. And that is why should we still go into an office. What is lost when we don’t meet physically?

Social gatherings across the years

Looking to why did our ancestors gathered in groups gives us an insight as to why it has value today. They gathered to protect the group from risks, like a sabre-toothed tiger; or to share resources where collaborative effort was needed – to hunt a mammoth or maybe to gather nuts and berries from a large tract of land.  In essence to tackle tasks that were too big to be done solo.  They also gathered for specific things – for rituals and to celebrate.   So, why do we, in the Anthropocene age, need to gather in groups?

Klaus Schwab has written extensively on the 4th Industrial revolution and arguably the current pandemic has accelerated the onset of this new world.   Using the idea of the Industrial Revolution is a good place to start.  In early village life probably the only places where you didn’t work from home were the local flour mill or the blacksmith. And even then the miller – and the smith probably lived in or above the premises.   They both needed machinery to do their work.   Cloth was spun at home. Baking was done at home etc.  Life was home based, as was toil. Pre the industrial revolution people, in the main, worked the land and went home.

As the industrial revolution gathered pace and the lure of the cities, and coming into a place of work, was dictated by the use of increasingly heavy machinery.  People congregated to use the machines that were ever increasing in size.

The knowledge age

In our current model of bringing people together to do “work” in offices we can draw a straight line from the “manufactory” to the modern office.  But knowledge workers are now using intellectual capital, not massive machines or production lines.  Does it make sense to bring people together to use machinery in the knowledge age when we actually have, arguably, the most powerful machines imaginable – in our HOMES!

So why would we come together in offices now – what makes for a good reason?  Firstly, humans are hard wired social beings.  We actually seem to LIKE being with other humans.  And maybe there are functions such as our need for social proof, membership of our particular “troop” of primates and the social status and that sense of belonging it affords us.  We seem to be hard wired for social groups – have you thought about why we wave to other people when we leave video conference calls?   We don’t wave to people when we leave a meeting in a room with other people.

Collaboration is key

For some people working at home is not the most productive place to work. When we think of younger people in shared accommodation in expensive cities, sharing a single wifi source with multiple people on different Zoom or WebEx calls is not ideal.  And then there are the deleterious mental health effects caused by loneliness.  Coming into an office to build “social capital” is, arguably, another good reason.

As part of our coming together as social beings we have, for a long time, used social groups to mark significant things.   To celebrate times of significance – the solstice, the changes of the seasons. We have rituals to mark births, marriages and deaths – or in our modern parlance new joiners arriving, promotions, and goodbyes for people leaving for pastures new.  All have attendant ceremonial, celebratory, ritualistic and symbolic significance for us as humans.   It is also likely that skills, like flint napping, how to hunt together and communicate were learnt in social settings.

Despite the challenges of home working and the inherent value of gathering to mark significant events, there is something else- the value of in-person, face-to-face collaboration.

The office is a place of in-person collaboration, arguably it’s – Darwinian.  Our success as a species is partly because we have learned collaboration over the millennia. As this pandemic has shown we have cleverly manufactured tools that allow us to collaborate – to an extent.   But our new technology does not facilitate the creating and absorption of culture by osmosis, nor the serendipitous sharing that happens with chance meetings in an office.   Nor does it enable those serendipitous occasions when mentoring and coaching can be delivered – simply because we are in the same room at the “right” time.  It may also be the case that some of our biases become amplified in the virtual world as our ability to detect the micro-cues of behaviour is diminished.  But calculating the ROI on these is virtually impossible.

We know that virtual working is raising questions in some sectors of our modern world about how we develop the subtle social and other skills that we seem to acquire by osmosis.   Can we still learn as well when we are distant and relying on virtual technology?

So, let me revert back to my original question.  Why should we bring people back into the office? I am sure lots of smart people will be working up protocols and reasons to come into  offices in the coming weeks and months.  And now would be a good time to revisit the old maxim from the world of strategy that “form should follow function”.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking are:

  • What are the real reasons we need people to travel to the office in order to meet in groups?
  • What are we seeking to achieve in the office – that we can’t achieve virtually?
  • What are the best ways of enabling those in our offices and workplaces to be even more purposeful and productive than they might have been otherwise?

For me, I sincerely hope that part of the answer will simply be because it is fun to be hanging out and doing stuff together with colleagues. But we will have more success if we understand the value of collaboration- the specific value that comes from bringing people together.


Mike Mister is a partner at leading professional services consultancy PSFI and specialises in the areas of development of leadership and change management. With over 30 years’ experience working internationally with senior leaders and their teams, his key interest is the intersection of strategy, commercial success and the organisation’s people agenda.

He is also a Senior Fellow in the Human Capital Practice of The Conference Board and is the co-author of “How to Lead Smart People” with Arun Singh, a Senior Fellow with The Conference Board.

A similar version of this article was first published on THE CONFERENCE BOARD’S Human Capital Center website.

Mike Mister
Mike is a Partner at PSFI and works with professional services firms on designing, developing and supporting change agendas and building improved leadership capabilities in partners. His areas of expertise include helping organisations understand the importance of partners as leaders in building sustainable practices, the leadership and motivation of diverse, high performing teams and leadership across the partner life cycle.
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