02 June 2020
While it may not be the ancient Greek agora, the Parisian café that birthed modernism or the plywood palace that was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Building 20, the office building is not dissimilar – it too is a hub for creativity and collaboration.
In the context of global isolation and distance, notions of community and collaboration have assumed new meaning and worth. Moving the office to the home, in what can only be described as the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, has meant that the way people and corporations do business has shifted. Many have welcomed this move, finding it easier to complete tasks at home, and realising that this way of working is not just possible but productive, and the office may not be as important to them as it once was. For others, however, this change has taken away something irreplaceable – it has deprived them of a space, a place to meaningfully interact with colleagues, learn and flourish.
With the government slowly easing restrictions, the ‘return to the office’ is becoming a possibility of both exciting and daunting proportions. This transition will raise significant legal issues including employment, real estate, planning, technology and health and safety. However, while the legal issues should not obstruct the meeting of a clear public need, they will need to be navigated with care.
Over the past decade, businesses have been re-thinking the way they set out and utilise the buildings their employees inhabit. There was a significant increase in the number of co-working spaces available to and occupied by independent, mobile workers, and in the office sector, the open-plan format was on the rise. With these changes, it became clear that irrespective of the exact structure, size and use of a workplace, what they all have in common is space. Space has a magic of its own – it enhances the work of groups as it fosters generative interactions between people. Yet almost overnight, the COVID-19 crisis unfastened this hard work, leaving what were once homes away from home for some deserted and meaningless. But the office building and what it fosters is far from futile.
In the spring of 1943, MIT inadvertently created the first of what we might now call a co-working space by constructing Building 20. It was intended only to be temporary – designed in a single afternoon and hastily constructed. Its hallways were dim, its walls paper-thin. The ventilation was poor, but this building that was once regarded as a failure quickly became a centre of ground-breaking research and one of the world’s most creative spaces.
Building 20 was home to the Laboratory of Nuclear Science, the Linguistics Department and the machine shop. Among its inhabitants were nine Nobel Prize winners. Building 20’s people pioneered a remarkable number of breakthroughs, from bettering high-speed photography to developing the physics behind the microwave. It gave refuge to the linguistic genius of Noam Chomsky, and the musical sensibility of Amar Bose. Above all, the building was flexible and adaptable – it belonged to no one person, school or department. By the time it was demolished, Building 20 had evolved from a transient timber structure into an unregulated chaotic domain, an academic melting-pot filled with groups of people hurled unknowingly together. It is this human friction that creates sparks.
The office, like Building 20, is a creature designed to both influence and be influenced by its inhabitants. What is required of a building as an architectural art form is not that it affirms its own identity but that it enhances that of its users.
Offices spaces have an uncanny ability to extract the best from people and this why they are far from dead. Indeed, they are our answer to the current crisis of community.
The office is a place of dedicated work. The scars and marks on the walls all have meaning. All the artefacts that remain tell its story and the stories of those who have and continue to breathe life into it. It is better than a monastery and more akin to a temple.
The culture that businesses have been so conscious to create and preserve is not only fostered structurally by the four walls of the office but the spaces within it. The values of businesses are more easily and meaningfully instilled within their employees when they are together. While working from home brings its own set of benefits, it characteristically requires over-regulation. Meetings are scheduled to the minute, phone calls are never not planned and drinks are shared through a screen. People can make do with substitutes for a period of time but not forever. Without its inhabitants – its organs – the skeleton of the office and the culture for which it has become known cannot function.
Creativity and innovation are collective processes and as it goes, two heads are almost always better than one. Zoom conferences and phone calls were initially sufficient, perhaps even a novelty, but they are unable to replace face-to-face engagement and the unexpected interactions that occur when people are physically proximate.
Just as Chomsky could not have done without his exposure to biology and psychology, nor Bose without synthesising his musical knowledge with that of the engineers down the corridor, we cannot forego the knowledge spill-overs that happen in the elevator with morning coffees in hand, or those that arise as we walk past the desks of our colleagues. The office building is an active participant in the interactions that occur within it, particularly of the informal and un-regulated type, which are essential for creativity. It is here that colleagues simultaneously assume the roles of teacher and student as well as friend. Nowhere else can we find the same sort of serendipitous collisions that occur when different minds and different fields of expertise converge in a shared physical space.
While the return to the office might not (immediately) lead to the world’s next Chomsky, what it will do is reignite the cross-pollination of ideas in a way that working from home cannot. It will return to us the ability to be spontaneous, to create and seize opportunities that emerge from the most unlikely places, and to push boundaries and challenge conventions in a way we have not done before.
The office generates routine. We commute to a different environment every day and have time alone to plan and reflect. It also simultaneously offers a degree of unpredictability where each work day is different and exciting. While working from home might have necessarily afforded us a new daily routine, it has forced us to replace the excitement of unpredictability with a fear of it, to replace the pain of growth and progress with the pain of stagnation. The social interaction, friendships and support networks the office provides are important in maintaining morale as well as mental and emotional wellbeing. The importance of this cannot be undervalued, and nor can the feelings of distance that we are inevitably and rightfully feeling. Virtual arrangements will never be able to foster wellbeing in the ways the office can.
The COVID-19 crisis has changed how we understand both work and space. Our current practices have made people feel both liberated and claustrophobic but the question remains: what is the future of the office and how are people’s altered expectations of work going to be managed?
There is no doubt that flexible working arrangements will increase and perhaps a hybrid of working from home and the office will become common. However, this will not be the end of the office era. We should not prematurely mourn the loss of the office – there is still a Building 20 and a community ready to re-bloom at the centre of every single one.
This publication is part of our insight series COVID-19: Navigating the implications for business in Australia and beyond. To get notified by email when new COVID-19 insights are released, please subscribe for updates here.
This publication is introductory in nature. Its content is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice based on your specific circumstances before taking any action relating to matters covered by this publication. Some information may have been obtained from external sources, and we cannot guarantee the accuracy or currency of any such information.