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Do we really need the office?

My desk at HBR is a chaotic place: covered with books, stacks of folders, gifts from colleagues (mostly involving cats), and dozens of pens that no longer contain ink. I also quite like it. My boss and a colleague sit on either side of me, their desks a bit more pristine. Zooming out, the rest of our digital team sits in an open space, while our print colleagues tend to work in cubicles. It’s not perfect: It’s often freezing cold, and it’s hard to find quiet places to edit. But we have working internet, coffee, and a printer. Big windows look out over a highway. And as I commute from work to home or the gym each day, I do a mental transition exercise in which I crumple up parts of the day and “throw” them out until tomorrow (it’s weird, but it works).

I’m typing this in my sweatpants, in my living room, because our offices have been closed since mid-March as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. My internet goes out approximately twice a day. I exercise in the same space in which I answer emails and Slack messages. I sort of mentally crumple up my day as I move from the living room to the kitchen for dinner. I am just a small part of an accidental grand experiment: Do knowledge workers really need the office?

As summarized in a June New York Times magazine article by Clive Thompson, anywhere from 5% to 15% of Americans worked from home before the pandemic. As of April, half of Americans who were employed pre-Covid now report working from home, according to early research by a group  from MIT, NBER, and Upwork. Even as U.S. government workers begin heading back to the office, growing outbreaks across the country (and new evidence of indoor airborne transmission) may keep many other offices closed for an indeterminate period of time. In other parts of the world, the situation may differ; a colleague at HBR China reports that, despite a recent outbreak in Beijing, many offices have remained open since late February, largely due to widespread monitoring and aggressive testing and tracking. But office workers in India have been instructed to work from home as much as possible. And according to a recent article in Fortune, Covid-related restrictions are still largely in place in office buildings across Europe.


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