To Office… or Not to Office? Now that is the Question!
There are probably far better articles written by experts on this hot potato topic, but here is my personal perspective; and in typical fashion, perhaps not so humble.
In the short term, this viral pandemic has created physical illness, in the medium term, we will see serious increase in mental health issues and in the longer term, we will all feel a serious economic global downturn. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong on the latter two. It’s too late on the physical side.
I have worked for 40 years at 17 different companies, if you take into account my school holiday job selling oil paintings door to door, waitressing, working as a bank teller and eventually into my first real job as marketing secretary at Diners Club; I have worked for large and small agencies, global brands as well for myself and in four cities across three continents. I guess you’d say I am resilient and adaptable to any change.
In 2002 I left the mighty FCB South Africa and set up The Tipping Point, my wonderful CRM consultancy, in my spare room in Sandton, SA. After about 6 weeks, my sons, aged 11 and 9 wondered why I couldn’t fetch them from school at different times and commented that “Mom doesn’t really work” because I was at home all the time. I guess that triggered a self-worth thing within me, and off I went to seek an office. At the time, my wonderful friend had just started the M&C Saatchi agency in SA and offered me space in her rented offices (yes, Regus was a thing even then!). As my business grew I found myself the tiniest office in a lovely block close to home and kids school — it had its own kitchenette and toilet and housed four of us for three years until I finally merged with BBDO and set up Proximity, moving to plush offices that could accommodate 15 and then 35 of us. On days were I have officially needed to work from home (and trust me I have had employers who have frowned heavily upon the concept), it always felt alien.
So, when lockdown happened in mid-March 2020, and we were all sent scurrying to work from home, I felt resentful. I like our “ Havas Village” office space, our cafe, our mix of people across 21 agencies, the fact that we have no single use cups and how conscious we are about recycling; more than that though, I have never liked to mix business with pleasure; I’m the girl who is at her desk at 0745 and stays late to finish. I am the girl who takes the first plane out to Copenhagen for client meetings and the last one of the evening ensuring a full day’s work. I also have never had the luxury of an extra room to set up as a study / office at home, and as many of you know, I spend half my life up in the crystal realm, so too many computers and screens and office like stuff cluttering my personal space is a preferred “thank you, but no”. Having owned my own companies, and run three agencies, my experience tells me you need the people in to create the vibe, to feel into body language, to gauge the emotional state, and indeed, I also know what it means to pay rent and fixed overheads for an office!
4 months into COVID-19 with change forced upon us all without any time to plan and having worked at my “diningdesk” and “beddesk” I am now reading and listening to the “experts” lamenting the return the office, how evil offices are... and I ponder, really?
I think it’s all very well for those of us with bigger comfy homes, but what about those who don’t have that luxury? Have those who say “WFH is brilliant” stopped to think about the true viability of situations such as five-man house shares, people living in townships, those sitting on beds or floors to work, sharing internet or using an antique mobile. It’s psychologically tough to keep saying on the phone, “sorry my internet is really bad”, or asking your kids to “be quiet”. Working from home certainly works for those with “people-caves” and quiet houses, but, for the majority of people, an office is a place you get to do your job as best as possible. It is a place where you learn and teach and make friends out of colleagues. And it is all about give and take, you arrive and give of your time and intellect, and in return, you are provided with a desk, a chair, equipment, a roof over your head during the day, and yes, you are paid. Quid pro quo. If you work for yourself and choose to save money and work from home, you provide yourself with these things or accept the sacrifice. If you work for a company and you choose to work from home, should you expect the company to fund a perfect desk, a decent working chair and a whole bunch of screens? How do you create a great vibe when only a handful of people come in to the office?These are some of the practical hard stuff issues, and probably easier to find equitable solutions for.
But what about the softer stuff, the things that make us all a little twitchy, a lot teary, and bring up emotions. When I physically saw my team, my CEO, my former MD and my colleagues for the first time on 17 June, I was completely overwhelmed. I wanted to embrace and be hugged. Instead we stood awkwardly saying hi, our arms making a “zoom wave” even though we were within ten steps of each other. When the team sat in a meeting room together, the familiarity crept back; we could read other’s glances, rolling eyes, and body language and we could bid farewell to our lovely intern in person (breaking bread over zoom, well no, that’s not a thing)! I like writing on real walls and “pouring” over creative ideas, or musing on a couch around a strategy.
Humans are not meant to be isolated nor separated, we are not Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we have developed into a species of working beings, and the uprising of shared office space is testament to that, and in my personal opinion, over time, there is most likely going to be a greater adoption of the “and” strategy; we will find ways to accommodate different needs and attitudes, some office, some home, prerequisites of certain hours and number of days a month in and out etc and employers who have long term office space commitments will find sustainable options and we will settle.
As for me, right now, I am not going in every day, yet, because the law requires us to wear a mask on all public transport and the tube is my only way to get to my very lovely office (do not suggest I cycle, I will be a hazard to all and driving across London is counter-intuitive to saving the planet) but sooner or later, before anyone notices, I will be there more often than not, because I know when I am in the office, I am more comfortable, I am more creative and I am happier, after all, I am the quintessential people person; and then, at the end of the day when I leave I will be grateful for the time in the office, and, when I get home, and I will feel like I am home!