Chief Executive, British Council for Offices
There are many reasons why we want to work in an office, including the very real benefits of building networks and learning from colleagues, but one of the most interesting is often ignored: inspiration.
Recent independent polling, commissioned by the BCO, found that 60% of office workers enjoy the creative exchanges that come from being in an office. The number was particularly high in marketing, an obviously creative field, with marketeers also being the least likely group to want to only work from home in the longer-term.
Why? Matthew Syed argues that people tend to ‘groupthink’. Even the most creative individuals share thinking and assumptions which match those in their field, or those from their background. In an office, particularly in shared office spaces, we have the opportunity to gain ideas from those with a different history, and perhaps a different way of thinking. This, in turn, helps our creativity.
In Syed’s book, Rebel Ideas, he cites Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) legendary Building 20. A haphazardly built space, the building housed small start-ups and research groups that couldn’t go elsewhere. Consequently, people from a huge variety of fields and interests would bump into each other and inspire each other’s work. This was aided by the building’s confused – but unintentionally brilliant – design.
From Building 20, Noam Chomsky developed generative grammar, Amar Bose founded his speaker company, and the Tech Model Railroad Club began ‘hacker culture’, among many other examples.
But the end of the office? No. In a world shaped evermore by our creativity, those working together are most likely to thrive. Long live the office.
Many businesses still advocate office-based interactions
While Building 20 may be an extreme of office success, it shows just how reliant our creativity is on others. Netflix offers a more recent case study. Reed Hastings, CEO, is one of the strongest advocates for a return to the office.
Why? His company has a culture of ‘radical candor’, meaning an openness and honesty about ideas and work. Hastings argues that this is best served by being together, in an office, and so has stated that his employees should return to their desks as soon as it is safe to do so. But the end of the office? No. In a world shaped evermore by our creativity, those working together are most likely to thrive. Long live the office.
Reducing barriers and interference from virtual working
As Hastings knows, the office is a place where new ideas are formed, challenged and perfected. As much as we may try our best to do this virtually, the effect is simply not the same. Our meetings are stilted and awkward when online.
Connections are often less than perfect, and participants tend either to interrupt too frequently or are too reticent. Compared to the natural chemistry of a physical meeting, Zoom and Teams calls frequently lack ‘spark’.
An office allows us to strike up chance conversations; the opportunity to quiz and probe, especially those higher up. Who hasn’t learnt from more senior colleagues? Most of us further on in our careers benefitted hugely from those conversations and remember the informal advice and guidance to this day.
Businesses who foster office creativity will thrive
Some may claim that this matters for clearly creative businesses, like Netflix, but not for most others. However, Nicola Bianzino, Chief Technology Officer at EY – hardly the soft and fuzzy place usually associated with ‘creatives’ – argues that the rise of AI, and its ability to perform repetitive tasks, will focus human effort on innovation and new ideas. The most successful businesses, in any industry, will be those that value and foster creativity, and these are most likely to be those with a strong office culture.
So, as we look to a 2021 that may, just, allow ‘normal’ life to return, we should think about how we want to work. Clearly, working from home is here to stay, and will become more common for many – an essential part of the mix. But, the end of the office? No. In a world shaped evermore by our creativity, those working together are most likely to thrive. Long live the office.