Why we need our offices - an interview with Daria Jezierska-Geburczyk, a psychologist and an expert in cultural studies
M.H.-J.: In the last few months many employees found themselves struggling with a totally new reality. The change happened overnight – all of a sudden, they were expected to start working online. A lot has already been said about how to create a home office, experts have discussed advantages and disadvantages of working from home. Yet, our team members started wondering which needs could be actually satisfied at work. I mean when you work in an office in which you see your colleagues on an everyday basis.
Daria Jezierska-Geburczyk: The answer to this question could be a very long and complex one. Let me start by saying that your intuition concerning the significance of everyday meetings with your colleagues is absolutely right. People build and deepen the relationships with their co-workers thanks to continuous conversations or even accidental encounters during coffee breaks, i.e. thanks to the time they spend together, which is easier if you are in the same office rather than on a scheduled call. Such relations may ultimately provide you with support, contribute to the feeling of safety and the sense of belonging. According to 2016 ‘Women in America’ report by Gallup, the main reason why women work and why they do so with great commitment is the social aspect of work. Scott Galloway takes it even a step further. He believes that it is young people that will especially need to return to their offices because the work within the shared space presents them with lots of opportunities to widen a group of their friends and to look for their soulmates. On the other hand, from what I can see while studying people who lead stable family lives, crossing the office threshold may work as a borderline which allows them to leave the role of a parent/partner behind and assume the role of a worker. Or the other way around, swapping the roles when they leave work and return home. The going out to work can clearly separate the family life from the professional one, which is what some people really need. Carl Frey, an Oxford economist, looks at the future of work from an entirely different perspective and, going back to our talk, we can also say that at the future of the office. In one of his latest interviews he pointed to the connection that exists between the wage levels and success of remote work. The higher the income, the better conditions for online work. And vice versa – the lower the income, the tougher the conditions, and then it’s nice to leave home. For example, leave for work. In the context of social injustice and inequality, your question could be paraphrased into: “Which of the needs can work fulfil?”
M.H.-J.: Is it possible to satisfy all those social needs you’ve just mentioned when we work online? After all, on Zoom we can also see our colleagues, right?
D.J.-G.: It’s harder to satisfy those needs, but not entirely impossible. The research on online work organisation and processes to build virtual teams has been done for several years, and some solutions have been developed. Scientists have been debating how to enhance shared identity and shared understanding. Shared identity will make you feel that while being part of the team you are an element of a larger whole. However, the identification with the team and the shared goals may get weakened when you work online as you work separately from your colleagues and you see them for some brief moments during a day, and after that you concentrate on your own duties. Shared understanding is a feeling of understanding the behaviours of individual team members, it’s about the transparency of relationships; it’s a mutual understanding. It’s not only the understanding of how to divide responsibilities, but the understanding of different situations people happen to be in. The lack of either of the two could ultimately lead to a lower level of trust or even to some serious conflicts within the group. That’s why, online work, being a new context, requires much effort, lots of creativity on the part of managers and team’s open mind to take care of these areas. But it’s possible.
M.H.-J.: What is the office for? In your opinion, is office work a value which should not be overlooked?
D.J.-G.: All of us may have various ideas about the office and its role. And that’s quite interesting. We should ask ourselves: What is the office to me? What associations do I have when I think of the office? What does the very word mean to me?
I myself have been working from home for a year, which at this stage I value very highly, yet I must say I miss the space which would be just mine, the space in which I could do my work. Therefore, looking at that from my perspective, the office would be the place where I could hear my thoughts, in which there would be hardly any distracting stimuli, and the few ones left would be inspiring and would make me take up some action. To me, the office is, first of all, the space to focus and then the space to act, to complete my tasks. On the other hand, when I think of working in an open-plan office or in a co-working space, I realise that the office there would need to perform other functions, support other areas/domains, and, as a consequence, would evoke other associations and give completely different answers to the questions you’ve just asked.
M.H.-J.: Many of us started missing their offices quite soon. What is it that we miss? Is it the office or the people?
D.J.-G.: Some people miss the rhythm and the daily routine, because the “going out to work” can organise the whole day for them. You know what time you should get up, you know what things you should do to get to work on time. I also heard some people say they actually miss commuting. The ride on a bus or tram in the morning or in the evening was to them the time they would spend reading books or listening to podcasts. As I’ve already mentioned, some miss that clear line (i.e. of entering the office) that would separate the personal life from the professional one. In this respect, it is the physical space itself that they miss. Someone else could miss the atmosphere, face-face contacts with other people, chats over a cup of coffee or lunch with co-workers. At that point, you miss something more than just the four walls of your office. What’s interesting, many of these needs could be satisfied at home and people have been trying to do so. Obviously, it requires consideration, much creativity and self-discipline. So, perhaps we miss the things that are gone. Maybe our old habits? Maybe the old patterns we used to stick to?
M.H.-J.: What is so significant about work?
D.J.-G.: That’s a key question. First, I would again encourage you to reflect: Why do you work? Why is work important to you?
Amy Wrzesniewski, an American psychologist, who researches the meaning of work has come up with three possible answers to the above questions. The first answer is pretty obvious – people work to get paid. Those people who perceive work as a source of income say that it’s important to be able to support themselves financially and to live a comfortable life outside of work. Others work in order to develop themselves, master their skills and move up in the company structure, which translates into increasing their social status, power and influence. These people look at work in terms of making a career. To the third group, it’s vital to pursue their own values, which are sometimes narrowed down to passions and interests, but it all comes down to satisfaction and fulfilment derived from doing the work for oneself, others, and the environment. To such people, it’s essential that work gives them the sense of purpose. Sometimes this is the goal in itself and it often blends in with their personal lives. We should, of course, realise that this division is arbitrary. Most often people work to fulfil the needs of all the three levels.
M.H.-J.: Is the office an important value? If so, to who? To managers or to employees? Which group will find it hard to manage without an office?
D.J.-G.: I would try to answer this question with a meme that has been circulating online:
I think that both managers and employees could find it hard to work from home. It doesn’t actually depend on the position you hold but rather on the widely understood life context you work in.
M.H.-J.: So, just to conclude. What is the future of the office? And I’m not thinking about whether and to what extent we should transform our work space or how we should design or furnish it. I’m just wondering if the traditional, familiar to all of us office will still be needed? What do you think of that?
D.J.-G.: The pandemic has demonstrated that it’s much more convenient to perform some of our work responsibilities online. For instance, many people are happy now with the smaller number of those lengthy, unproductive meetings that used to be held in their conference rooms. Some of these changes will definitely stay with us forever. Google and Facebook, for example, have announced that their employees can work from home until 2021. Anyway, it’s easier to get used to this kind of changes as they are purely technical.
However, work is something more than just ticking off the checklist. There are certain aspects of work that can’t be easily transferred into the virtual reality. It’s much easier to communicate, to build relationships, understanding and trust within the team when we meet in person. Adapting to a change on a deeper, social level is going to take us longer. That’s why, I strongly believe we need and will still need offices, but the scope of their functions might be diminished or changed. In a long-term perspective, when we get used to working from home, when we get acquainted with technology, when we develop the new norms of behaviour, maybe our models of thinking about the forms of work, interpersonal contacts, and, as a result, about the office itself will undergo some changes, too? It’s hard to say. Right now, it would be ideal if the pandemic made us stop and think why we work and how we work.
Daria Jezierska-Geburczyk – a psychologist and cultural studies expert. In her Ph.D. study she examines various ways of how to understand and interpret the notion of work. Her expertise in psychology and humanities is put into practice in Myślnik educational and consulting activities -> www.myslnik.com.pl