Why do we still have offices?

It used to be that work was the place that contained the equipment and materials you needed to do your work: paperwork, typewriters, fax machines and copiers.

Now, unless we need specialized machinery or are working in stores where people come in to buy stuff (remember those?), a lot of us can theoretically do our work anywhere we have an Internet-connected device and a phone. For example, I’m writing this in my doctor’s office in Santa Fe while I wait 30 minutes to ensure I don’t collapse in an anaphylactic mess after getting my allergy shots (Ed: and I’m editing it sitting outside a cafe in Brentwood, Los Angeles).

So why do you have to go to a place that duplicates the facilities you’re carrying in your pocket? It often boils down to inertia and fear on the part of the employer.

Inertia

Firstly inertia: it’s easier to keep doing what we’ve always done long after the reason for it no longer applies — especially if very few people are asking any awkward questions about why. Sir Ken Robinson points out that not many people under the age of 25 wear watches, because they’ve grown up being used to checking the time on their phones. Older people also have phones, but are mainly still wearing watches — we don’t need them, we’ve just got used to doing it that way.

Whether you wear a watch or not is pretty harmless (I love my anachronistic mechanical single-function device), but the same inertia extends to office customs, including the custom of having a office in the first place. Especially for people over 35 or so, there’s often a deep unquestioned assumption that you have to go somewhere special to do work, especially if you’ll be working with others. If you’re starting a business or a nonprofit, you think of the time when you’ll get your space, hang up your shingle, and open your doors.

People can’t immediately imagine how not having an office would work, and the effort to work out how you’ll collaborate with your team, share files and get stuff done seems daunting when you could just stumble along with familiar in-person habits instead, even if they cost a fortune and make everyone miserable. Despite this, many of the ways we now work in an office underline how we don’t need to be there: we put files up on Dropbox rather than a local server, email folks sitting across the room from us, and do GoToMeeting sessions with colleagues across the country.

In the inertia-run workplace, some people are allowed to work virtually, but even that doesn’t raise the question of why the rest of us can’t do the same. As Jason Fried of Basecamp points out in his book Remote, we trust a wide range of consultants (like our accountants and lawyers) to work without supervision — perhaps because we assume they’re sitting in their own offices.

But despite these inconsistencies and the lack of joined-up thinking, inertia keeps people struggling through traffic to reach offices they don’t need to be in.

Fear

Managers and owners would say that supervision is another key reason for keeping a physical office: people come in, they get told what to do, and then stay there while they do it so superiors can make sure it gets done. Supervision literally means ‘looking over’, with the implication that without being watched, employees can’t be trusted to do their work. Supervision is born of fear — the fear that nothing will get done, that people left to their own devices will slack off and watch YouTube cat videos all day.

Many employers’ default position is to mistrust the people they hired to the point that they pay a fortune in rent for a glorified Panopticon.

And in some ways the managers are right. People tend to perform to expectations, and if it’s clear that employees are expected to slack off and not think for themselves, then they will. In this sort of culture, people internalize the sense that they can’t be trusted to look after their organization’s best interests, so don’t really try (‘Not my monkeys, not my circus.’), and rightly conclude that can’t trust their employer to look after their best interests either. When required attendance in an office is backed up by strict vacation policies, approval procedures for spending the company’s money and other policing measure, staff end up being treated like children.

This supervision born of fear doesn’t even work very well, since being able to see people at their desks is a terrible way of keeping track of what people are doing, let alone motivating them to perform at their best. Focusing on ensuring that people are physically present often replaces more more positive values, processes, communication, goal-setting and support that would actually help people get stuff done, and enable everyone to have more transparency about what was being worked on when.

Because the more old-school supervision and meeting approaches won’t work, a virtual organization has to have better processes, tools and communication channels in place, making them ironically much better at tracking productivity than the bums-on-seats employers.

Fear and inertia are tough to overcome, but do you really want to work for a company whose key organizational model is built on those negative values? The success of a growing number of organizations such as Automattic and InVision show that it’s possible to work in a different way, and I would argue that it’s essential, if we’re all to be as happy, productive and profitable as we can be.