A collage of illustrations of people working in an office in cubicles

Work Culture

The Modern Office Needs to Go

Most of us spend at least 30 percent of our income on homes, and most of our time at work. While more jobs are going remote, do we even need physical offices?

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Is your office refrigerator running?

It probably is, even on Saturday. In fact, the AC is likely on, too. And I’d put money on the fact that at least one person left their computer humming last weekend. Maybe someone even forgot to turn off the light in the conference room. The EPA estimates 16.1 percent of our annual emissions in the U.S. are directly attributable to commercial activities like heating and cooling offices and powering computers. The average office enrolled in the EPA’s Energy Star program (which are the offices the agency tracks) uses 184,000 BTUs of energy per square foot annually. And the interesting thing about office energy consumption is that least efficient offices are much, much less efficient than the most efficient offices. They’re wasteful of space too, with an average of 2.3 employees per 1,000 square foot.

But that’s not your office’s greatest sin. Your office’s greatest sin is that it still exists, even though it likely doesn’t need to.

All day, our houses—which we spend, on average, 30 percent of our income on (more if you’re low income)—sit empty. All night, our offices do the same. Meanwhile: The affordable housing crises in cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Honolulu is intensifying. A lack of available housing units means families face tough choices: Move out to the suburbs and face hellish commutes, or stay and live nearly hand-to-mouth on what used to be considered a middle-class wage.

From a land use, housing, climate, and quality-of-life perspective, this system isn’t just nonsensical, it’s cruel.

Sure: Not every job can be done from afar. Park rangers belong in parks, and scientists probably shouldn’t split atoms in their kitchens. But according to 2016 BLS statistics, there are around 125 million office jobs in the U.S. A good chunk of those can be done without being shackled to a company-owned chair, but we’re not letting employees work this way.

To be clear: Remote work is growing. A 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43 percent of respondents said they did at least some remote work. Which seems like a lot. However, a 2017 academic paper published in New Technology, Work and Employment, questioned the validity of a lot of reporting on rates of remote work. The paper pointed out that work is changing, with many employees doing a few hours of work at home on top of their time in the office. Plus, folks who work remotely are often freelancers or part-time workers, meaning they miss out on benefits and job security—but many surveys don’t differentiate between worker types. Finally, major employers who have tried remote have often done about-faces a few years later, like Yahoo! and IBM. 

Considering the state of our housing costs, the state of our planet, and the state of our sanity, it’s time for more companies to actually embrace remote work—and not in the “you can do two hours of work from home once a week” way.

The most pressing reason to move employees out of offices comes from America’s affordable housing crisis. There is currently no place in the U.S. where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The average rent in San Francisco is $3,700. In Boston, it’s $3,069 and in D.C. it’s $2,224. Atrocious housing prices are pushing families farther into the suburbs, and young workers into $1,200 a month “pods.

One of the main roots of this crisis is that cities are not building housing at the rates needed to keep up with demand, says Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a Boston-based affordable-housing developer and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) advocate. “In the Boston area we are going to need about 430,000 more units by 2040 to keep up with population growth,” he says, adding that right now, building forecasts put the area about 100,000 units short of that number.

We know that expanding affordable housing is good for our nation—and for communities. According to a 2014 review of research done by Enterprise Community Partners, adding affordable housing units not only reduces homelessness, but it increases family stability, which means kids get to stay in their same schools year after year. It also brings more purchasing power to a neighborhood, as more families bring dollars to local grocery stores, dry cleaners, and other small businesses. Like, a lot more dollars. The 2014 paper says that for every 100 units of affordable housing added to a community, $7.9 million in local income is generated in the first year and $2.4 million works its way into the community every year after that.

Even better: In many cities, commercial office space is in the center of town. This means it’s already well connected to transit, making it even more ideal for transitioning some units into housing.

Using real estate this way may be tricky, though. In 2018, $394 billion in commercial real-estate transactions changed hands in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine stakeholders converting this space into affordable housing. Luxury condos seems more likely. While it’s not ideal, Jesse Kanson-Benanav, says that it’s better than nothing. “There’s a saying that the new luxury housing today becomes the affordable housing of tomorrow. To some degree that is true, but it takes time.”

One possibility is to look to what the city of Vancouver, Canada has done with its “Empty House Tax.” The tax was put into place in 2017, when foreign investors were snapping up houses and raising rents and home prices. If a home isn’t occupied at least six months of the year, the owner is dinged with one percent of the unit’s value. For offices, this might be a quota with so many workers per square foot. Suddenly having a suite of conference rooms that sit empty most of the week might not be so appealing.

Real estate aside, we should be working from home because commuting sucks. A 2014 study done in the U.K. found that long commutes—especially 60 minutes or longer—translate to lower life satisfaction, lower levels of overall happiness, and greater levels of anxiety. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American commute time is 26.4 minutes each way. That’s basically a wasted hour a day, or 250 wasted hours a year. But commutes get longer when you zoom in on large cities—where most of our best-paying jobs are. Those cars marching back and forth are ruining our roadways, belching tons of carbon dioxide into the air, and costing us in gas, wear and tear and our sanity.

Back in 2008, Transportation Alternatives, a New York City group that lobbies for alternatives to cars in the Big Apple, found that just 10 percent of the city’s workforce switching to walking or biking to work would save 120 million pounds of C02 emissions per year. And that was ten years ago, when gas prices were higher and shoppers were opting for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Now imagine what would happen if, in every city in the U.S., a chunk of the workforce simply commuted from their bed to their desk.

To be clear, this would not fix all of America’s transportation woes. “Our commute trips tend to be our longest, but we’re making three to four other trips a day,” says Tara Goddard, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. We’d still need to work toward more bike and pedestrian-friendly cities, and better funding for rail and bus systems. But it would lighten the rush-hour load, save gas, and save us wear and tear on our cars—and that seems worthwhile.

Outside of big cities, there’s another argument for remote work: It could revitalize our ailing rural communities. In May, the Conversation posited that rural areas are doomed to decline. I live in one of those doomed places, a town of just under 2,000 in Tennessee.

We don’t have enough skilled employees to attract major employers like Google or Amazon. But there are plenty of folks with high levels of skill in rural America. I’m one of them. I’m lucky to be able to freelance. For many others, though, the best options are to move, suffer through a long commute, or work in jobs well below their skillset.

Remote work would free us from needing Amazon to pick my town for its next headquarters. That, in turn, would quiet the mayoral groveling and gross tax-break granting when a big corporation announces a hunt for new digs. It would mean college graduates would have a reason to return to their childhood zip codes, and it would allow mid- and late-career workers to come home to care for ailing parents.

But most of all: We should get rid of offices because they’re awful.

Offices are terrible places for women. I’ve been yelled at for making coffee before the boss arrived (which was never in my job description). I’ve been tasked with organizing the birthday parties and passing around the “get well soon” cards (again, strangely absent from the original job duties). I’ve been cornered by creepy men, and told to “drop it,” by the folks in HR. I’ve been told that my clothes weren’t formal enough, were too formal, were too racy, and were too dowdy. I’ve watched my women colleagues be penalized for bringing their kids to work when they’re sick—or having to leave early when daycare closes for an outbreak of hand, foot, and mouth disease. And, actually, offices are terrible places for almost everyone—especially if you don’t fit the traditional standards of beauty, which, by the way, help some of us get promoted over others. Offices require their own set of clothing—which is wasteful and expensive. And they are full of gossip and cliquish politics.

So, it surprised me that so many folks, when I was talking about getting rid of offices on Twitter, retorted: But we need them for social interaction!

I wanted to retort with the 2003 Postal Service lyric (I know, I’m old): This place is a prison; these people aren’t your friends.

“Over the last 150 years, capitalism has made it so our personal identities are tied to our work, versus what we do in the community,” says Paul-Brian McInerney, an associate professor of sociology who studies economic and organizational sociology. We even assign status to our workplaces, so we feel a sense of pride about putting in 80 hours a week at Google or the New York Times. But happiness experts know that workplace success rarely translates to long-term happiness.

The thing is, you can build your own community. And when you do, you get to fill it with people you love—and not just people your boss chose because they went to undergrad together.

To combat the loneliness of working from home, I use my would-be commute time to volunteer, talk to neighbors, and meet friends for workouts. Sure, workplaces can be a community, but really, our communities should be (duh) our communities. That, however, is something that’s somewhat fallen by the wayside as we spend all of our waking hours in buildings miles away from our neighborhoods.

And there are arguments for offices, since collaboration can be a useful tool. McInerney points to tools like Slack, which let us communicate from anywhere and says, “They’re very, very good for brainstorming, but really terrible for going into depth or doing any real planning.” Basically, these tools move too quickly to be truly useful for vetting ideas. “There’s no pausing. You’re just trying to keep up with the scroll,” says McInerney. Offices, meanwhile, can lead themselves to real, collaborative breakthroughs. However: Those breakthroughs don’t happen in the way you might think. A 2014 article from Harvard Business Review chronicles what happened with Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company moved to tighter office spaces and larger break rooms, which the employees were encouraged to use more. The breakthroughs happened while brewing coffee and reheating lunches. “Working from home takes away that possibility of spontaneous interaction,” says McInerney.

And he’s skeptical anyway that bosses are going to let us work remotely anyway. At the beginning of our interview, he expressed that there was an optimistic reason offices were not going anywhere as well as a pessimistic one. The optimistic reason is that they foster collaboration. The pessimistic reason is that our bosses love spying on us.

“The way that work is structured is that the interests of the people doing the work diverge from the interest of the people making money off the work,” explains McInerney. Your boss wants to get the most work out of you for the least amount of pay. That’s capitalism, folks.

This system breeds distrust. We don’t trust that we’re being paid a fair wage, and the CEOs don’t trust that we’re actually doing the work they’re paying us for.

Which is why offices are so damn useful to employers. A physical workspace grants management a tidy way to keep tabs on us. The modern professional office may not have specific hours you must be at your desk, but if you’ve never felt the pressure to be the first one in or the last one out, well, you’ve clearly missed the explicit social cue that the “hard” workers are the ones who are there the most. McInerney quotes a young software engineer interviewed for Gideon Kunda’s book “Engineering Culture, who said: “I get to choose which 20 hours a day I work.”

McInerney adds: “There’s already internet surveillance going on.” Your email—even your personal Gmail—can be monitored and all the websites you visit tracked. Your employer may also watch your keyboard to ensure you’re typing enough words per minute. “They can’t do that if you are working remotely,” says McInerney, adding that most of these programs run through the company servers.

And, here’s where McInerney is a real buzzkill. When employers do find a position that can easily be done remotely—like, say, payroll—“they outsource it,” he says.

In other words: The end of offices may end up being the end of full-time, benefits-paid work. So really, the question at the beginning of this story shouldn’t be: Is your office refrigerator running? It should be: Why aren’t we all running for office to change this economic system which is so stacked against workers?

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