Unbundling the Office
A look at the jobs-to-be-done for an office and why/how the office as we know it will cease to exist in the future but will nevertheless continue to exist
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Not too long ago many of us were the 9-to-5-in-an-office kind of people. You know, fight traffic or catch trains, buses, ferries and huff and puff to reach the office on time. On reaching the office, jump into meetings and force your mind to be productive and on reaching back home after a long commute .. work for a few more hours.
Growing up, life was not too different. Regimented with structure baked in. Defined school hours with start times assuming that every kid was productive at the same time. I never questioned this regimented approach to school and when I finally joined the workforce it seemed .. normal. And then of course everything changed …
In The Advantage Of Being A Little Underemployed, Morgan Housel talks about how fixed working hours are an artifact of the Industrial Era:
Twenty years later, the New Deal pushed for broader workers’ rights. It used the Adamson Act as a template, as no one wanted to favor one field over another. The eight-hour, five-day workday was standardized for all industries.
Eighty years later this work schedule – originally designed for the endurance constraints of railroad depot workers – has become so ingrained that we rarely question it, regardless of profession.
Which is crazy.
For manufacturing companies this made sense and probably still does? But what about knowledge workers? The key difference is as Housel points out careers shifted from physically exhausting to mentally exhausting. I think there is a bit of nuance which is not clear in the way Housel has described this. Office jobs can, in addition to being mental jobs, be repetitive or non-repetitive. An accounting clerk, for example, has a more repetitive job than an engineer even though both are mental and not physical jobs. The accounting clerk might be more likely to work “8 straight hours” and not get burned out but an engineer doing deep thinking will get burned out real fast working that way for days. This will be less noticeable as compared to a factory worker output is not as easy to measure.
Compare these two statements:
Jeremy was assembling 5 widgets an hour. By hour 6 he was down to 4 widgets.
Raul was writing 100 lines of code an hour. By hour 6 he was down to 75 lines of code.
Which one is more measurable?
Which brings me to my reasoning for why the past couple of years has resulted in unbundling the office. While offices will never completely go away, the jobs-to-be-done for an office have and will continue to change. I think the existing office bundle is becoming an artifact of a bygone era.
The office bundle consists of a physical location to which you likely have to commute, an assigned place for employees to work individually, common places for workers to meet and work on issues, break rooms for people to take breaks, hallways for serendipitous conversations and communal activities for employees to bond both and become friends at and outside of work (happy hours after work), gyms/workouts for employees to exercise and stay physically and mentally healthy.
Companies provide this bundle to prospective workers. Just take a look at Glassdoor or the marketing page of any company. : “Best place to work with blah blah”, “Huge gym”, “trails nearby to walk” but do most employees take advantage of these things?
As Housel mentions :
It’s just hard to do that because we’re set on the idea that a typical work day should be eight uninterrupted hours seated at your desk. Tell your boss you found a trick that will make you more creative and productive, and they ask what you’re waiting for. Tell them that your trick is taking a 90-minute walk in the middle of the day, and they say no, you need to work.
A friend of mine used to work for a manager that used to always ask his employees if they were going to the gym during lunch.. Everyday. This company, that shall remain nameless, was one of the best companies to work at in the SF Bay Area.
Employees are not forced to but expected to be automatons working for 8 (or 10-12) hours straight while they can’t without judgment enjoy parts of the bundle that might have attracted them to the job in the first place. Any wonder that most employees don’t want to go back to the workplace?
If we break the bundle into bad, indifferent, good pieces it might look something like this
Bad : Commute, 8+ hours of focused knowledge work
Indifferent : Assigned Place, Common Places/Meeting rooms, Break Rooms
Good : Hallways, Communal activities, Relationships, Gyms/Workouts
Ask most people what they miss about being in an office and you’ll get some variety of hallway conversations, communal activities, friendships. Ask them what they don't miss about being in an office and likely answers are the regimented structure, the freedom from being watched and the need to appear to be “working” continuously (which is nothing but a poor proxy for having good measurable goals).
I’ll also caveat that there definitely are certain roles (hardware products) that require working together for longer periods of time but as a sample size of one I can wholeheartedly say that I have been more creative and better able to get my job done working from home than at an office. I can plan my day better, get a workout in during the day, think, come back, work, maybe read for a few minutes, or get a cup of coffee and when I am finally back to work I can focus and do better work.
Being able to divide my day into focused/non-focused chunks helps me work better than if I were in an office environment from “9-5”. Like everybody else, I have incorporated parts of the bundle at my “home office” but I do miss meeting people and building relationships and whatever you might say in-person is much better than over a zoom. Was your last “Zoom Happy Hour” a good substitute for meeting in person?
This is why I think we see a lot of surveys where a certain percentage of people do want to go back once or twice a week to enjoy the “good” parts of the bundle.
This leaves me with two thoughts:
Firstly, the office as we know it, is permanently unbundled. Companies should realize this and instead find ways to give employees a smaller bundle of the “good parts” that employees enjoyed while letting them
Secondly, while I am bullish on remote work, I also think that a work-from-wherever-you-want model as opposed to a hub model will likely result in a lot of disassociated and disengaged workers. Companies must target hiring efforts and building out smaller and more hubs (as opposed to 3-4 humongous offices around the world). This will help knowledge workers enjoy the best parts of the bundle as they’ve always done which helps companies scale up and around the world.
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