Is the Office where we work?

We work in an office. That truism was upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. People analytics might bring the people back.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our building shape us.” | Winston Churchill

Most of knowledge workers spent a significant day of their work day on optimizations. Improving sales processes, fine-tuning operations, writing code that computes faster or thinking about fancy HR analytics to make people work more productively. Yet, the place we physically work at is rarely optimized. The office of today looks strikingly similar to how the times when the printing press was first moved.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the work place dramatically, likely for the long-term. Full companies moved remotely, a process that seemed unimaginable even three years ago.

Now some people do not want to return to the office at all anymore. Companies have tried anything from encouraging people with parties to pushing their employees with implicit threats. The Morgan Stanley CEO James Corman infamously quipped “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”. Looking at recent job boards (even at the career service for MBAs at Harvard Business School), remote only jobs are becoming a real thing. So what might convince people to return?

The office of the future promises to offer more than just chairs and desks, water coolers and foosball tables. We could move to different areas based on the type of work we are engaged in: collaborative areas around communal tables, library rooms for deep work and lounge areas for presenting. And those are only structural changes in the buildings, the real appeal may come from bridging the analogue world with the digital.

The lights and temperature adjusts to our mood and energy levels based on fitness trackers. Our relationships in the office get analyzed and serendipity gets pushed by “random” assignments to whom you should sit next to today. Microphones – using meta analysis, no content – understand your communication effectivness and presence in the office. Air filters detect early signs of flu waves and liquids are automatically delivered to your desk so you stay hydrated. All of this sounds futuristic, but every single idea exists in offices already.

The present feels like we can work from anywhere. Perhaps we return to a future, where we can only really work from the office.


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Student comments on Is the Office where we work?

  1. Really interesting article! I enjoyed thinking about the range of possibilities for making the office an ‘optimal’ place for employees to work from, by addressing everything from hydration and health, to network analysis and promoting connections between team members based on their seating arrangements. This last point reminded me of the first company I worked at after undergrad, where we adopted a “hot-desking” system – every day everyone in the office had to find an available desk and when we got there there were sensors that tracked our presence – I suppose there are many other things they could have tracked as well. It would have been interesting to see if employees really did end up sitting next to a range of other team members over prolonged periods of time or whether people ended up coming in early and sitting in the same place as much as they could!
    One concern (which is mentioned in the linked article) is the problem of who owns all of this data. It seems only fair that the company and the employees on whom data is being collected should have access to the data and some control over what it is used for. I can imagine a scenario where some employees might be deterred from working at a company that is not fully transparent on how it is using the office sensor data, or where a scandal breaks out after employee data is sold to third party firms unknowingly!
    A lot of interesting potential in all of the ideas of sensors we could have within a smart office, but overall it leaves me feeling a bit uneasy – rather like how some people feel about the presence of wide ranging CCTV on streets in the UK!

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