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Shop talk: Do we even need office spaces anymore?
Who's going back to the office? The CEO of a company in Washington, DC, has taken the peculiar step of sharing an opinion piece with the Washington Post, saying "I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion."
■ Even taking her "concern" at face value, Cathy Merrill chose a strange forum in which to express her thoughts. In the pages of her own magazine, she waxes nostaltic about the way her company embraces long-term employees. But one doesn't just publish an op/ed in the Washington Post hoping that it reaches merely a niche readership. The Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are America's three newspapers where people go if they want to be read by the elites.
■ Some work environments have agglomeration effects. Some don't. Most are probably on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremes. But it is downright kooky to suggest a one-size-fits-all rule of "If we don't see you, you don't count."
■ Office culture undoubtedly means something. Human beings often like to work in proximity to other human beings, even when they're not working together -- hence the etiquette of working from a coffee shop and the emergence of co-working sites and business incubators. But unless you believe that the entire white-collar economy of the United States has been artificially inflated since March 11, 2020, there's no denying that working from home has worked out satisfactorily for a lot of people.
■ We were forced to make extremely rapid adaptations in the spring of 2020, with technological innovations filling voids created by the disrupted workplace. But now that everyone's been forced to learn how to behave during a Zoom meeting, there's no reason to pretend like that isn't a default component of the standard worker's skill set. A workplace skill, once broadly acquired, easily becomes an expectation.
■ Some environments will always need a physical presence -- nobody's going to start building heavy machinery from home. But the productivity numbers suggest that now that we're over the initial learning curve, it's perfectly fine for many office workers to remain home-office workers, without any excessive pain for their employers or the economy as a whole. But as for the "things that drive office culture"? If they're important, competitive forces will find ways to bring them back. If they're not, then like bell bottoms and slap bracelets, they'll find their proper place in a dusty old nostalgia bin.
■ Instead of hand-wringing over "office culture", more of our energy ought to be devoted to considering the broader need for mental well-being. The last year has put a spotlight on the need to train a lot more people to provide support for mental health. As in, possibly by at least an order of magnitude more than we already have. The people who are actively seeking professional therapeutic help are almost certainly outnumbered by the people who would probably benefit from some form of mental-wellness support.
■ Victor Frankl observed that "Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days." And that was in 1946, before religious identification and participation had met their modern decline. The quests for self-understanding, meaning, and belonging are rightly to be satisfied beyond the purview of the HR department. Addressing those needs holistically would a much better use of our time and efforts than worrying about who gets the last slice of office birthday cake.