Much has been made of how working with colleagues in the office is important for creativity, team-building, brainstorming and development of ideas. Of course, that benefit is offset by the time spent commuting and on idle chatter, let alone the occasional unpleasant encounter.
However, a recent article in the New York Times got me thinking that perhaps the office serves another important function. The article discussed the many benefits of encounters with strangers. No matter where you live, you will meet people in your apartment building, on your road, and while out shopping and the like. That serves an important function in boosting your morale as well as keeping up your social skills.
For many of us, those social skills have atrophied over the past two years plus. Some of us have seized on the opportunity to stay home and turned into virtual (double entendre intended) hermits and receded into our private worlds, and that does not even require the Metaverse. The office provides an opportunity to redevelop those social skills. Given the nature of my business, I was champing at the bit to get back to the office at the first opportunity, let alone social life. This required a bit of a transformation as I am mostly an introvert which is unusual for someone in sales (no matter our business, we are all in sales).
On the other hand, my husband Eric is more of an extrovert. However, he readily jumped at the opportunity to work from home when the plague hit. Since that time, he has barely budged from home and hearth except for playing tennis with me (mandatory) and regular forays to Madison Square Garden, which he deems an essential activity. Like many others, he has also embraced the opportunity to turn down social obligations that were previously required, as everything was turned upside down.
But what keeps us going are connections to other people, however random or distant. We can’t totally withdraw into a cocoon, much as many of us would like. We are already divided politically and angrier than ever. Accordingly, the office provides an important community space where people are required to follow certain standards of conduct and behave in a reasonably civil and friendly way, even if it is a forced interaction or stratified by job title. The office also forces us out of our personal silos, political and otherwise and we are exposed to people of different backgrounds and experiences, and even supporters of different sports teams.
Further, I have found throughout my career that I have been enriched by hearing a wide variety of opinions and perspectives, which have served me well in dealing with all sorts of issues. When we go to a central business district, we encounter all kinds of people in many situations as well. This also teaches us cooperation and tolerance, and respect for others. While the jury is still out on whether the intangible benefit of meeting in person is necessarily good for a company’s profitability, I do think it has another important value that cannot be found on the balance sheet. Are we going to be a Nation of individuals or a community? That community is already significantly frayed, as we all know. Accordingly, we had better figure out ways of working together. The office, which provides an important way of connecting diverse individuals with each other, may therefore be a good metaphor for society as a whole.
When employees stay home, they are to some degree withdrawing from the larger world which in turn impacts their world view. Isolated by Zoom and by choice, they may become more insular and dogmatic. So perhaps there is a lot more at stake in the ultimate outcome of the return to office than the bottom line. If we can’t even get together at the office the fragile thread binding us becomes weaker, and there may be unintended consequences that extend far beyond the business world. We may need the office even more than we realize.