Why did offices become like the home?
- 2 August 2013
- From the section Magazine
While the idea of working from home has failed to kill the office, workplaces have started to look much more like homes, says Lucy Kellaway.
The other day I got into the office early to find a young colleague noisily munching his way through a bowl of Fruit 'n Fibre at his desk. Just behind him his dry cleaning was hanging on the coat stand, and on the back of his chair was a damp towel.
"Doesn't he have a home?" I thought.
But of course he does. The thing is that, like many office workers, he doesn't distinguish between being at home and being in the office.
Over the last 25 years what we do in either place has got harder to separate. In the office we shop, email friends, go to the gym, have a nap and, at a pinch, have sex on the photocopier.
The only thing we don't do much of is work - according to a recent survey, 70% of the time we spend at our computers is cyber-loafing.
Meanwhile, at home we do our work email, take part in conference calls, write reports and have our best ideas.
It leaves one wondering that, if the two spaces are much of a muchness, what's the point of having an office at all?
The reason home has merged into work is, of course, mainly due to technology.
We take email for granted now, but it took a lot of getting used to when it was introduced 20 years ago.
A 1985 report from Rand Corporation entitled Towards an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail pointed out:
"People have had about 50,000 years' experience in the use of speech and gestures, 5000 years' experience in writing and about 100 years of the telephone. Electronic mail is different. Part of what we mean by that is that the old telephone or letter-writing rules of behaviour do not automatically transfer over to this medium and work."
At first we didn't have a clue. Was it a letter, a memo, a telegram or a phone call? We used to write shouty messages in block capitals, or all in groovy lower case.
We used to sign off with kisses, or send dodgy jokes to the whole office. Worst of all, we pressed reply instead of forward. I once sent a cheeky email about my boss to my boss.
But right from the start people loved email not because it made communicating faster, but because it meant you didn't really have to communicate at all.
"The cool thing with email is that when you send it, there's no possibility of connecting with the person on the other end," wrote Douglas Coupland, in his 1994 article about working at Microsoft.
"It's better than phone answering machines, because with them, the person on the other line might actually pick up the phone and you might have to talk."
Email messed with the power structure in companies.
Bosses no longer dictated letters to secretaries. Even the most powerful people write their own messages. Everyone that is, apart from Lord Coe, who managed to put on the London 2012 Olympics without sending a single email - an achievement that strikes me as even more extraordinary than winning a string of gold medals.
Email meant that anyone could send anyone a message. Talk to Bill Gates? No problem - firstname.lastname@example.org. No titles, no surnames.
Whether you'd get a reply from Bill G was another matter.
And because it was so easy - and free - to send a message, what we got was spam.
The Rand researchers were already worrying about this in 1985, complaining of messages about "cheese-buying clubs and upcoming ski trips".
But then the floodgates opened and everyone started complaining not so much about spam, but about too many legitimate messages.
The latest way of dealing with messages is called a yesterbox - you read yesterday's messages today. It sounds a great idea, but has already been done. It was called the postal service.
But it wasn't just email that has narrowed the gap between home and work. Clothes have played a part too.
In 1984, the team that brought the Apple Macintosh to market were wearing something the business world had never before seen before at a formal launch - grey hoodies.
This was the beginning of the end of something that had been part of office work since clerks spent a fortune on those black coats. Now the point was to look as scruffy as possible.
Corporations looked on enviously - they wanted to be cool too, but for them the hoodie was a step too far. Instead they brought in Dress Down Fridays, where people wore the hideous "business casual" of chinos and polo shirts.
BT went casual in June 2000, at the height of dotcom mania.
"We now have the dress code that you can wear whatever you like. We're a pretty relaxed lot in this new wave," said its chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield.
"Dress codes are more relaxed and that feels at first sight like something very humanising," says Chris Grey, professor of organisation studies at Royal Holloway University.
"But the more important meaning of it is to say that there's no difference between you at work and you not at work. You can't think of yourself anymore as being the nine-to-fiver."
Just because everyone dresses like they've just wandered in from doing the garden doesn't necessarily make the office laid back. The president of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld, was more perceptive on this than he would be on credit default swaps.
His bank was the last on Wall Street to go business casual in the late 90s. His reaction: "This democratic bull has gone on for long enough."
But if you could dress like you do at home and read your emails there, then what's the point of the office?
This question was asked for the first time during the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Jack Nilles, a former rocket scientist, worked out that telecommuting was the answer to the traffic problem. Less travelling meant a lower demand for oil.
Ten years later the futurologist Alvin Toffler came up with the cute idea of the electronic cottage, a wired office at home. It was going to be great. We'd work shorter days, see more of our kids, and stop polluting the planet.
Only it hasn't quite worked out like that.
In 2011, 17% of the workforce reported working from home occasionally - not that much more than the 14% who did so in 2004. And it hasn't meant shorter hours - it's often meant longer ones.
In fact the tide seems to be moving back the other way. A couple of months ago Marissa Mayer at Yahoo banned homeworking.
Her furious underlings pointed out it was OK for her - she had built her own nursery next door to her office. Not everyone can do that.
But it seems people were slacking at Yahoo. Offices were nearly empty on a Friday and she needed to put a stop to it.
There is an irony. Companies like Yahoo, Google and Facebook made it possible for the rest of us to work from home. But they are increasingly insisting that their own people show up at the office.
To do this they have started a new trend in design, which is to make offices look as much like home as possible.
At Google's new offices in London there is flowery wallpaper and lampshades designed with a sort of granny chic in mind. There are slides and Astroturf croquet lawns, and kitchens and fridges stocked with endless supplies of free food.
But perhaps the idea of an office as a physical place has had its day.
In 1992, Apple launched a new gadget called the personal digital assistant with the slogan: "Put your office in the palm of your hand." Adverts for its rival the Palm Pilot showed a desk sliding into a suit pocket. So the office is wherever we are.
"It's a misnomer to call it the end of the office," says Gideon Haigh, author of The Office: A Hardworking History.
"Our work would no longer be penned up anywhere and our work become all encompassing and inescapable. For as long as the office exists, it will be possible to get away and leave it behind.
This piece is based on an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life, produced by Russell Finch, of Somethin' Else, for Radio 4. Episode 10, The Office Is Where We Are, is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 2 August.