Home / Opinion / Columns /  The office is outmoded, but it will still survive

For now, they are asking nicely. Except for Elon Musk. Across the West, and even in India, the top management is pleading with employees to return to physical office, at least three days a week. The era of ‘remote work’, they say, is over. In asking employees to return, the bosses are even explaining the concept of the office to them, chiefly the good bits. Apple’s Tim Cook wanted employees to return to work at least three days a week to restore “in-person collaboration". Even US President Joe Biden pleaded with federal employees to return to their workplaces. Over the past few weeks, Indian tech companies used a respectful tone as they advised employees to return. Elon Musk has not been so nice about it. In June, he issued a memo that said remote work was no longer acceptable. “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean minimum) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers." He also tweeted that those who “think coming into work is an antiquated concept… should pretend to work somewhere else."

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Yet there is a widespread belief today that the office is obsolete. This is not only the hope of many young executives, but also the fear of seasoned bosses.

But I believe the office will survive. It is even possible that the office will endure for many years.

Bosses tend to like offices. From there, affection for the office progressively decreases down the hierarchy. But, historically, bosses win, especially when they have a fair point. At most, they will have to throw money at the rebellion. Usually, freedom-seekers do not find freedom; instead they make slavery more lucrative.

Why do bosses like the office so much? On this matter, there are things they can say in public and things they cannot. Their reputable reasons are known. The ethical idea of ‘productivity’, for instance. They like offices because physical human meetings are hi-res and are the most efficient. Also, people marinating for hours in an office build stronger bonds with their colleagues. Everyone who has gone to work knows this is true, even in Indian offices where people waste a lot of time drinking tea and chatting. But, what the bosses also want to say but cannot is that most people do not like their jobs, they only do them because they have succumbed to the addiction of a monthly salary and will not be very productive if they are in a home environment. There is also something else that the bosses are not saying.

Bosses like the office because it reaffirms the fact that they are bosses. What is a king if he cannot see his kingdom? Freed of oppressors, bosses truly enjoy working in offices, and remote employees are an inconvenience that does not improve the boss-hood life of bosses in any way. So, bosses have good reasons to save the office.

Also, the popularity of remote work might be exaggerated by journalists and a type of creative techies who are drawn to the idea of freedom. It is possible that many people like to go to an office every day for various reasons that has nothing to do with work. In Mumbai, for instance, people have such terrible tiny homes that they would rather endure going to work against many odds, a phenomenon that some intellectuals have often misunderstood as “the spirit of Mumbai". People also like going to offices to be liberated from spouses, parents, in-laws and children. And, people do enjoy meeting their colleagues and even pleasing their bosses.

Most people cannot handle loneliness for days on end, and remote work is exactly that. It is what writers, and other types of artists endure because there is no other efficient way of creating, and even they cannot take it. Some writers have tried to liberate themselves from the loneliness of writing by coming up with plans like the ‘writing lunch’, during which, they claim, they have lunch with friends and still write. This is not writing, it is having lunch. But the point is that even artists find it hard to work for days without meeting other people casually; like people who are less tiring than lovers and family, or just colleagues.

The obsolescence of the office is not new, from a purely technological point of view. Over the past two decades, the reasons why people should be physically present in an office every work day have lost their rigour. The idea of remote work itself is not new. The office, in fact, is a post-obsolescence triumph. Like representative democracy, which emerges from an ancient time when people in a locality had to elect a human to represent them and be heard in the capital. Today, we do not need a human representation; our voice can carry anywhere in the world. But obsolete things survive because modernity is just the name of an age, and people live in various eras.

Since the rise of the internet, the death of the office has been invoked now and then. About 16 years ago, after heavy rains in Mumbai trapped thousands of people for hours on roads and in vehicles, there were murmurs across the city about the antiquity of the office. Some companies seemed to have already taken the view seriously. A spokesperson of IBM India told me that hundreds of their executives were encouraged to work from home, and were given financial incentives to do so. But even then, bosses thought remote work was a euphemism for slacking. Even then, some people craved freedom from the workplace and others said they loved going to office. Since the time, the office not only survived, but thrived.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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