A surprisingly enjoyable experience of quarantine has made me think if I started a company, an office would be a waste of funds.
For the past 14 days, my routine has been effortlessly military. I wake naturally and do a 20 minute workout (yep, every day), before showering, cooking a healthy breakfast, and then sitting down to get started on the tasklist left waiting by my computer the night before.
Every day except for one self-assigned day off was filled with 8 to 10 hours of productivity. I was struck by the monumental difference in the emotional response to my work: I didn’t have to get things done. I wanted to.
As a content manager, translator, and photographer, I’m lucky enough to be able to do almost all work from my laptop, but I can’t think of many friends for whom the situation is vastly different. At home, once I finish my “work work” for the day, I can settle into one of the personal projects that being in an office 5 days a week usually relegates to the backseat. I’ve never felt so productive in my life.
It doesn’t even feel lonely. The bouquet of video calling apps available on my phone means I can call friends whenever I want, while a literal wall separates me from people I don’t like. Judging by the number of memes that circulate online mocking the introverted characteristics of millennials, I can’t be the only one somewhat enjoying my enforced isolation.
Obviously, working from home isn’t universally viable. It’s hard to imagine how filmmakers, construction workers, or plumbers, for example, would make a living from their kitchen table.
A huge portion of global labour, however, occurs via Word, Excel, Photoshop and countless other softwares that run our world. Why make workers come into an office to tap away on one particular keyboard instead of another?
Offices are expensive. Commuting to them wastes precious employee hours and finite global resources, before you factor in the more important fact that they affect your happiness. A study published in the World Leisure Journal clearly linked longer commutes with lower life satisfaction, largely because participants felt they were missing out on things like physical activity or family time.
These are things younger people care about. In the words of the Washington Post, “Survey after survey… show[s] that what millennials most want is flexibility in where, when and how they work.” What better way to meet these shifting worker needs than utilising the COVID-19 outbreak to test WfH practices?
Imagine you work a desk job. Aside from meetings, which can be conducted via Skype or the now blazingly popular app Zoom, couldn’t almost all of your work be done from your home computer or phone?
Sensitive data and shared folders can be stored online. Companies could provide you with a work computer; many already do. Apart from the occasional office meet-up or essential face to face meeting, remote work seems completely possible.
The problem comes, of course, when trying to align this rather utopian hypothesis with a potholed reality.
Some might say the reason we have offices is because employees, left to their own devices, are simply not productive. The internet is already awash with memes of people day-drinking and finding comical ways to kill time. The 3 out of 8 hours wasted at an office desk (according to this study) might become 7 or 8 with a TV and bed in close proximity.
And what about coworkers? Hive mind and camaraderie are powerful forces, and important aspects of job satisfaction. Poignant also is the temporary nature of the situation we are in today. I can’t go outside right now. Maybe my productivity wouldn’t be so impressive if I were able to go shopping or to the beach.
To this, I fire back that we are already a generation for whom the majority of social contact – including at work – happens via messaging apps. Hive mind and the supportive network of coworkers can easily exist in the virtual sphere. We are a generation who has never known work, or play, without these technologies. We already know how to separate the two.
Team building and social things can and should still happen, once we’re no longer stuck in this weird semi-zombie-apocalypse. Without sharing an office every day, though, you’d have far more money (not to mention patience) to spare for them.
Plus, crucially, laziness is only fun in the short term. Anyone who has been unemployed for a long stretch will know that work does, in fact, make you happy (at least when done right). The idea that millennials are idle, self-indulgent phone addicts is also a typical generation gap misconception. We’ve grown up into digitally savvy multitaskers who care for and act on causes that matter to us. As a cohort, we’ve even been shown to take less vacation time and be more emotionally committed to our job than our elders when they were our age.
In in ideal world, office-less ventures would rely on trust, but insurance measures could easily be put in place. Location tagging employee phones would be essentially the same as walking by their office desk to make sure they’re there. Productivity could be measured in logged hours worked, or deliverables delivered.
Personally, I feel that that’s a little Orwellian, and that actually, skepticism of people’s ability to work without supervision is one of the biggest problems of the traditional office. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Workers are surely more likely to slack off if there is a nascent expectation they will do so.
I’m not saying left truly unsupervised with goals to work toward, all people will magically become pariahs of efficiency. I’m saying if they’re trusted and paid to do so, and perhaps with minimal supervision tools in place, millennials will put in the work they’re expected to. With no commute, highly flexible working hours, and the time to sleep, cook or exercise whenever they want, I believe many would be motivated do more.