Offices are much maligned, much beloved and at the center of a new(ish) tussle between people who hire people and people who take those jobs. A cottage industry of would be experts has emerged to offer answers to how we should navigate the new office environment – but maybe the answer is to look beyond the individual office.
There is no shortage of advice for how people should be thinking about the future of office work. A veritable industry has emerged of consultants experts and advisors with experience in everything from yoga to juggling to etiquette (you can’t make this stuff up!). Without wishing to add to the cacophony in the face of genuine uncertainty, we have a grand opportunity to think beyond the office, and the corollary, to think beyond the Central Business District.
Offices as metropolitan hubs
While it’s too early to say whether the work-from-home reality will stick for most office types or not, we can see that the preference of many workers to cram into densely packed office buildings has given way to a preference for less dense, remote options. As with every inflection point, there are winners and losers in this.
On the losing side? Owners of downtown real estate, the businesses that depend on those office workers and the ecosystems of retailers and service providers that surround them. The realization of the implications has public servants and observers of urban life in something of a tizzy, to the point at which New York City Mayor Eric Adams is appealing to workers’ sense of duty to come back to their cubes. As he put it (to laughter) at the Democratic National Convention, “You can’t tell me you’re afraid of COVID on Monday and I see you in a nightclub on Sunday.”
That is the issue actually, though, that COVID isn’t the issue.
As Nicole Gelinas points out in a New York Post article, “Before COVID, 1.1 million people from Connecticut, New Jersey and elsewhere in New York came to Manhattan to work at a desk each day. Now, only about 28.6% percent are back, most not every day.” That’s a lot of take-out lunches, train tickets and potential subway fares that have vanished.
But no amount of finger-wagging and cajoling is going to persuade someone to put up with a long commute, that guy microwaving fish at lunch and the constant interruptions of the office if employees aren’t willing to go there.
Professor Richard Florida, who has long written about where creative types like to live, has a different take on who and how cities will be revived, beginning with younger people. In a recent interview, he suggests that trends already well underway were only accelerated by the pandemic. “History shows that young people flow back to cities in the wake of pandemics because of the job opportunities, the better wage they provide, but also in the current day because that’s the place to meet and mate and date other young people,” said Florida.
As the article continues, “many employers have held off hiring young talent until the health crisis is over because they believe new employees need “proximity” for training, team building, and mentoring.
In the near future, said Florida, “expect to see a big rush to hire young people. That’s coming in the next few months… expect to see a rush back to the need for downtown offices to get young people in the mix, to get them mentored, to get them onboarded.”
The traditional crucible
This connects to the way in which young professionals have traditionally been taught their crafts. People in many professions – doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, consultants, emergency responders, elite military forces and the like – are often in situations which require taking effective actions with serious consequences if they get it wrong. They are deliberately put through a learning crucible in the course of achieving mastery.
The crucible is a naturally occurring or manufactured period of intensive testing and skill development. Elite military forces, such as the UK’s Royal Marines, are put through famously difficult training courses. Medical residents are given intense workloads which can be up to 80 hours in a week. Young consultants and investment bankers are pushed to move quickly up the learning curve with all-nighters and intensive workweeks.
Quinn, Andersen and Finkelstein argue that the crucible through which professionals are put as they begin their careers actually serves a critical developmental purpose.
As they say, “professional know-how is developed most rapidly through repeated exposure to the complexity of real problems. Thus for most professionals, the learning curve depends heavily on interactions with customers. Accordingly, the best companies systematically put new professionals in contact with customers, where they work under the watchful eye of an experienced coach… the legendary 80-hour weeks and all-nighters that give investment bankers and software developers their bragging rights serve a more serious developmental purpose: they enable the best talent to move up a learning curve that is steeper than anyone else’s. On-the-job training, mentoring and peer pressure can force professionals to the top of their knowledge ziggurat.”
The assumptions underlying these patterns make two assumptions about the structuring of professional work. The first is that skills are best developed through an apprenticeship arrangement, in which young talent is intensively mentored and networked with more experienced people. This often has a strong time and place component in which everyone is together, often at a client site or working on a client problem. The second is that careers progress through a form of ‘tournament’ in which people compete with each other to land the next promotion with an “up or out” kind of structure. The pandemic has led many organizations to re-think the way that first assumption works, while new forms of networked structures suggest the second may no longer serve the purpose it once did.
One possibility, outlined by Adrian Wooldridge is that companies will use more purposeful occasions to specifically accomplish what the old apprentice system used to do, by having focused space for offsites, intentional gatherings for training and other ways in which to get the same outcome from newly liberated office workers.
Beyond the office toward something more human?
Into this mix comes an idea that is not new, but perhaps whose time has come. Charles Stansfield, Jr. and John E. Rickert have called for the imagination of a “central recreational district.” As Florida puts it, we are witnessing a sea change in what places we work in mean to us. “We are seeing the death of an old central business district but, out of the ashes, the creation of a new one. The old central business district, which was a set of office towers where people commuted to and worked to process information – they were stacked and packed like a factory for office and professional work – that central business district is going away. There’s going to be a 20 percent reduction in the demand for central office space and maybe a 5-to-10 percent hit to central business district economies. But even most of these remote work jobs are in the urban centers, and most will stay there.”
What Florida suggests is that now is the time to more proactively design how we work, live, and relax. If you think about it, commuting is one of the biggest hassles of getting to a central business district. Putting people in affordable suburban bedroom towns and cramming all the employment into crowded central business districts was perhaps not the greatest idea. So now we have a chance to rethink, but I suggest it goes beyond narrowly considering life in the office. Eliminate the commute, add in green space, deliberately create what he calls “programming” to entice tourists and young people, and the meaning of office life can be redefined.
Indeed, Florida points us to such a vision. Imagine living where it’s “less a downtown that’s about work and suburbs that are about sleeping, and a blending and merger, where the downtown is more about work than life and the suburbs are more about living than working, but there’s a blending, and our whole metropolitan area becomes a federation of distributed complete communities.”
There is even a movement that has grown up around this idea. Called “15 minute cities,” it is term coined by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who suggests that Parisians be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
Which suggests to me that the next phase of what becomes of the office may require looking way beyond the office.
What we’re up to at Valize
On March 8, I’m going to be offering a live demo of our SparcHub software and introducing some remote learning modules we’ve been working on. Sort of a demo and an “ask me anything” conversation. The registration link is here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_yAXoCQ1MQfKoAiB3mzBuWA