Watercooler, coffee kitchen, home office or open space?

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Watercooler conversation

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with the phrase work-life balance, as it seems to assume that work is not life. However, maybe that’s the honesty of the phrase, as work often isn’t.

Recently, due to the pandemic, the topic of work quality has gained a lot of attention. Depending on their line of work, people seem to have become less tolerant towards unsatisfactory to bad working conditions, underappreciation, bad pay or all together. The Great Resignation, people quitting their jobs for various reasons in droves in the last two years, stands as witness to this.

There have been many disputes around how to continue with work after the pandemic.The lockdown situation enforced many changes in ways of working, and rapidly. What first felt like an involuntary, sometimes even reluctant, move into home office for instance – something we had to do to keep things going – eventually led to improved work situations for many employees (especially office workers). With bosses asking their employees to come back to their offices, many people are not so willing to give up these improvements like bigger organizational flexibility, fewer distractions, more time to focus, and fewer hours spent driving, to name just a few.

In this context, the following text from Harvard Business Review offers insights into office designs based on studies and experiments investigating what kind of office architecture is the best for what kind of activity. Instead of merely exchanging opinions based on personal experiences and preferences – what bosses or employees respecively believe is best for the company – the studies summarized in this text offer insights based on research into what kind of office designs support which kind of work. Does the open office really lead to more collaboration? What is best for meaningful communication? Where should we go or be if we need to concentrate? The article is from 2019, so pre-pandemic. Maybe some things have changed, but the basic findings and tenets I believe are still valid.

The Truth about Open Space Offices

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There have been a lot of discussions, books and articles about a change in attitude especially among younger generations towards the role of work and careers. They are, assumably, not as willing anymore to slog away their days in questionable loyalty to some company or institution, no matter what.

This change in attitude is not only to be only found among younger generations, however. There have always been people of different walks of life who questioned the ethics and merits of ‘hard work’ (also known as the protestant work ethic), and the notion that hard work makes you a better person. Just recently I read some interesting quotes on the wikipedia entry Critique of Work:

Nietzsche rejected the work ethic, viewing it as damaging to the development of reason, as well as the development of the individual etc. In 1881, he wrote:

The eulogists of work. Behind the glorification of ‘work’ and the tireless talk of the ‘blessings of work’ I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual. At bottom, one now feels when confronted with work—and what is invariably meant is relentless industry from early till late—that such work is the best police, that it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous energy and takes it away from reflection, brooding, dreaming, worry, love, and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfactions. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adored as the supreme goddess.[28]

Buckminster Fuller

The American architect, philosopher, designer, and futurist Buckminster Fuller presented a similar argument which rejected the idea that people should be de facto forced to sell their labor in order to have the right to a decent life, saying:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.[29][30]

This whole complex is of major concern to all and everybody, or should be, as it touches upon the world we live in, would like to live in, would wish for our children, and grand-children, the planet and all other creatures. It involves our – broken, as many believe – economic system, climate change and many topics linked to this.

See also:

UK workers spend less than two days at offices

Washington Post article: Companies say culture does not come from physical contact

Also: Apple employees fight back and launch petition against back-to-the-office-for-three days order.

Why Londoners refuse to drop home office

Take a look at the whole section Working from Home in The Guardian

Green Cities

Kate Raworth on a new paradigm for a new economic system (TED talk)

Richard Wilkinson on the ill effects of inequality in and for all societies (TED talk)

And an article from The World Economic Forum on how to battle inequality

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