The Problem with Prophets

The Problem with Prophets

RIP the office. Long may it prosper.

In the last year, I’ve edited and read more copy than a person should that foresaw the end of the office, a permanent change in all work. And boy, it sure made people sound wise to forecast it. On days when I’m alone in my North Loop office, I do sorta scratch my head and wonder.

Target’s announcement that it was dropping a third of its space downtown—rendering the Multifoods Tower not just an eyesore, but an empty eyesore—gave further pause. Target (where my wife works) has not cut downtown staffing by a third, but is anticipating a substantially smaller cohort of red polos populating downtown each weekday.

I am not a devotee of trend-focused, pundit-driven business wisdom, but those who are tell me that most of us are content working from home (WFH). Forever. A survey of my own colleagues apparently gleaned something similar. So businesses are drooling over rent savings, and commercial real estate brokers have a permanent case of the dry heaves.

But what if the prophecy doesn’t come to pass?

Downtown Minneapolis’s 200,000 office workers were the unappreciated foundation on which all other dreams rested. Tourism, events, residential, and conventions were the frosting on the economic cake that commuters baked. If an undetermined but substantial number of us are permanently at home, the side effects will subvert decades of efforts to renew downtown. Imagine the strain on restaurants, retail, transit, livability—it won’t be pretty while America’s downtowns retool, which may take more decades.

But what if the prophecy doesn’t come to pass? Yes, the shrunken office spaces and flexible hours are baked in. But the more apocalyptic scenarios—I’m not buying them. Here’s why:

  • One of the major failures of the pandemic was the public health community’s incapacity to grasp that humans are social creatures and many (most) of us could not continuously isolate for a year or more. This blind spot seems to be driving predictions about the future of work. Do we really believe 80 percent of the white-collar workforce wants to sit in their house alone all day? When 28 percent of households consist of just one person?
  • Remember coffee shops with annoying laptop squatters and co-working spaces filled with people wearing annoying Bluetooth headsets? Why were they filled with solitary folks on laptops if we prefer WFH? Those folks are coming back with a vengeance. I’m betting “third-place” settings will boom with workers displaced from offices. Can I still buy WeWork stock?
  • The nonpandemic WFH universe won’t have the productivity gains baked-in that my bosses are extrapolating. Americans, with nothing to do but take walks, have poured themselves into work, free of the shackles of commutes or a working lunch, trip to the gym, happy hour, Starbucks run. We told ourselves it was temporary, and it would end. And so the days of continuous Zoom meetings and continuous focus dawn to dusk will end as well. That was a bug of the pandemic, not a feature of the future.
  • Younger people are champing at the bit to return to the office—for the social aspect, but also because they want meaningful opportunities to gain knowledge and advance. So much of what I learned over my career happened in spontaneous office conversations. Workplaces that can’t offer wisdom sharing and knowledge growth will bleed staff. A more normal economy will promote turnover—especially if workplaces continue to expect the most mobile and dynamic members of their workforce to work in isolation.
  • Even WFH proponents admit onboarding, training, and maintaining a culture have become perfunctory exercises in the pandemic. Your new hires feel isolated and less a part of your teams. That can’t continue.

Eventually these factors will converge and come to a head. Wise companies will provide choice but will grasp that the rewards of work come not in a silent room, but while sharing our tasks and wisdom with others. Most of us will return to the office, despite grimy bathrooms and overpriced skyway coffee, because real collaborative work requires it.

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