Return to the Office? No Thank You!

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Imagine two scenarios. In one, you bring together the most pleasant and brilliant people selected from the global population of 8 billion. In the second, you take what you can get from those within commuting distance—perhaps eight million, in a major city.

Logic suggests the former, given the thousand-times larger sample, will yield a stronger enterprise and better co-workers. You may not be able to grab a beer after work with them, but that is not the purpose of most companies. This understanding was the silver lining of opportunity on the dark and tragic cloud of Covid.

Last year was when most people put the pandemic behind them fully—and 2024 is supposed to be the big year of RTO—the “return to office” yearned for by middle managers everywhere. A study published in recent days shows that out of 1,000 company leaders surveyed about 90 percent wanted a full return and over 70 percent thought it would help revenue (despite scant evidence).

A vendor works at his midtown food cart near Radio City Music Hall on Oct. 1, 2021, in New York.

BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images

Every study shows resistance on the part of many workers. But a deeper dive into the numbers shows that a clear majority of them favor hybrid work, which suggests that they do enjoy the perks of office life. They cite “work-life balance”—which attaches to their own well-being and not the company’s as such.

There is a nuance there that the discourse tends to ignore: the advantages of remote work,, such as selecting from a global talent pool, actually benefit the employer. And by availing themselves of the opportunity, they’d further save in many ways: the wasted time commuting, the energy costs of travel, the spaces and arrangements for accommodating finicky humans.

I have seen all this for years, first as a regional chief for the Associated Press in various parts of the world, and now as a partner in a PR agency whose purview is not limited to any city. The pandemic created a sea change; we sought our clients globally, and they no longer expected frequent meetings in person. Suddenly, two-week delays for in-person meetings melted away, enabling immediate action and considerable efficiency. The limitations of the past began to seem absurd.

But wait! We are told that humans are social animals who thrive amongst each other. The “water cooler conversation,” the lunchtime banter, the team-building in meeting rooms!

There is some truth in the proposition that these bring benefits—but does not much of the interaction in offices also attach to gossip, trivia, and competition? Are not many colleagues an annoyance or a distraction? And are not many meetings excruciating affairs where the most highly paid preen and posture while the others suffer?

Meetings can get things done, but they are also a forum for grandstanding and hierarchy-enforcing. Doing them by video probably diminishes the chances of the latter, because the more diluted experience is less amenable to toxic personalities. Plus, the misery of them makes them shorter, which is another word for more efficient.

In some professions there is a persistent notion that people are more creative in shared environments. I have tested this on news desks and business development brainstorming and other contexts. What I have found is that sometimes it is so, but more often work is either solitary or involves interlocutors in a different city altogether.

Context matters, of course, as university presidents will say. A McDonalds needs to serve burgers to people who are present, a mechanic needs access to your car, and a brothel in Tokyo will be no use to a Ugandan. But in finance and communications and science, there is no reason to believe one’s colleagues and vendors and clients and collaborators should be living in the same city.

In such professions the question practically howls at you: Must we really haul so many people from here to there each day, deposit them in common quarters, parade them before one another, arrange them in rows and groups, and cause all this posturing, politicking and pretending? That it’s undignified is clear; but the pandemic has accelerated our understanding that it is needless and expensive.

After all, corporate real estate rentals and the associated costs can account for a tenth and perhaps a fifth of overall company expenses in the modern world, and even more in the case of firms with fancy digs in major cities. Eliminating it could drive profitability and save more than a few startups from going bust.

Yes, they are a place to meet clients and business partners that in rare cases might impress—but not if your clients are national or global. Yes, many people like to get out of the house now and then—but not every day by fiat. And yes, many young people want work to generate a social life—but that is a very expensive perk. All of those needs would be satisfied by shared spaces like WeWork.

I sense that what we are witnessing is a tussle, as old as the hills, between managers and staff—between officers and the enlisted.

The former enjoy supervising from the safe and satisfying distance of the pleasant and personalized offices they long struggled to attain. The latter prefer to steer clear of managers who are often walking evidence of the Peter Principle (which holds that in a hierarchy people tend to rise to exactly their level of incompetence). And they certainly want to avoid their dispiriting cubicles, open plans, and hot desks.

When the real bosses wake up, when the owners finally decide, the offices will downsize or vanish in many professions, and so will business travel.

That process has strangely been forestalled, in part because of confusion, in part because of nostalgia, in part because of long-term leases. But when it hits us for real, the elimination or downsizing of offices (and also business travel) will carry societal and economic costs.

After all, the global commercial real estate market was estimated to be worth over $30 trillion, with office real estate constituting a substantial portion. The commercial real estate sector contributes significantly to national GDPs, job creation, and tax revenues in many countries. The demand for office space has a direct impact on construction, architecture, interior design, and related industries.

What, then, of all these business hotels? Perhaps they can become shared workspaces. And what of the business airlines?

Ah, the airlines. They deserve an entirely separate column. But for now, let me just say this about that: after the indignities they have visited on our unsuspecting species, they deserve everything they might have coming.

Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.