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"Finding purpose for the corporate office" by Dr Joe Ungemah on the OUPblog

Finding purpose for the corporate office

Over two decades ago, a new type of fictional TV series debuted on the BBC that established a foothold between reality TV and sit-com. The Office brought the viewer into a familiar, yet mundane environment loaded with caricatures of people they ran into on a daily basis and thereby blurred the line between fiction and reality. The format was so effective at creating tension between characters that it verged on cringe-worthy, especially when Ricky Gervais was in the role of David Brent. Common character arcs played upon power dynamics between boss and employee, ill-advised office romance, and useless business procedures, creating a solid foundation for the 10 global incarnations of the show. Regarding the American version, we remember fondly the rivalry between Jim and Dwight, the incompetence of Michael as manager, and the growth of Pam from receptionist to sales associate. The characters got deeper and the call-backs grew stronger as the show navigated nine seasons and 201 episodes, an amazing run for any show, especially considering its humble back-drop of Dunder Mifflin, a fictional wholesale distributor of paper and office supplies.

The Office was not the first TV series to depict the workplace, but it was probably the most effective at capturing what many of us experienced on a routine basis, due to the show’s mockumentary style. Sitting in a conference room for sales training, calling HR to resolve a personal dispute, and participating in a community service day were instantly relatable. In March 2020, the pandemic drew to an end this version of the corporate office, as a new normal of work was ushered in based upon virtual collaboration technology. The depiction of Dunder Mifflin has become more akin to a time capsule of the corporate office’s heyday than an enduring depiction of the workplace. Three years later and employee expectations are firmly set on hybrid work, averaging between two or three days from home each week. Moreover, a majority of employees are prepared to quit their jobs if employers do not offer the flexibility they desire. When pressed about whether employees desire greater flexibility in either where or when they work, they place greater weight on work hours, yet both forms of flexibility have become table stakes when defining a desired employee experience for attracting and retaining talent.

“A majority of employees are prepared to quit their jobs if employers do not offer the flexibility they desire.”

It is ironic that Dunder Mifflin was a paper company, as the primary purpose of a corporate office was based in large part on the creation and retention of documents. Around the same time as the premiere of The Office, early signs of a dwindling sense of purpose for the physical corporate workplace began, as companies introduced the concept of “the paperless office.” E-mail replaced letters and document retention transferred to large computer servers. Such a move did not immediately eliminate the need for a physical office, as employees still required computers, phones, scanners, printers, and fax machines to do their jobs. Office life continued, with confidential documents circulating from desk to desk via a sealed manila envelope and assistants printing important documents just in case the computer crashed. Soon after, the provision of work laptops and Blackberry phones further chipped away at its purpose. Employees embraced the ability to work from anywhere, including the local coffee shop. Office space that was designed for a world based upon paper was out of step with modern day working, as evidenced by the empty bookshelves and file drawers of a traditional office. Despite a lack of purpose based upon paper or technology, employees still traveled to the office, if nothing more than out of habit.

When the pandemic occurred, a major shift to virtual work occurred out of necessity and those in corporate settings adapted magnificently to a new way of working. Any apprehensions that collaboration technology was not ready for wide scale adoption were quickly put to rest and with them, the last meaningful purpose for a physical office. If meetings, workshops, and trainings could all be done from anywhere, how much value was left for informal water-cooler types of conversations and do they in any way justify a full return to the office, now that most health concerns have abated? It is important to note that many jobs never shifted during the pandemic; for those working in manufacturing, healthcare, or similar industries, their jobs are inherently linked to a physical environment where virtual work may not be an easy or effective option. For jobs based upon paper, the story is different, with occupancy rates in downtown settings still trailing pre-pandemic levels and likely to stabilize to around 20% lower than before.

“With little of the original purpose for the corporate office left, it may be time for a reinvention of what the workplace should be.”

So where does this leave the corporate office and what are the long-term ramifications for hybrid and remote work? To keep the physical office relevant, employers are searching for the core reason why employees should bother to travel in. Should the office act as a connector, primarily to foster conversations and innovation, or should it be considered a magnet, pulling employees in for key events and professional development? Alternatively, should it transform into a hub fully embracing the blend between work and personal time, with onsite facilities like day care? Regardless of the model, the effects of hybrid and remote work on psychological well-being will be experienced for years to come. Beyond the fatigue already felt by employees from attending endless video conferences, as well as the intrusion of work into personal time, there are likely some very real consequences for interpersonal relationships. For example, helping behavior relies upon individuals knowing that they are on point to be helpful, which is confused by the anonymity offered by virtual work and leads to free-riding. Alternatively, with less opportunity for intimate interactions, repairing strained relationships will likely become harder. As a third example, corporate identity is less pronounced without the experience of walking into a physical office, which can lead to a more transactional mindset amongst employees and a lack of shared social norms about acceptable performance.

In many ways, the relevance of the physical corporate office has been under fire for decades, but the pandemic accelerated the shift and eliminated any remaining hesitations about the feasibility of hybrid and remote work. Without finding a new purpose, it is unlikely that the antics of The Office will be repeated in the same way or frequency as before. We might look back at the series in a different way, more of a time capsule than the mockumentary that it was intended to be. With little of the original purpose for the corporate office left, it may be time for a reinvention of what the workplace should be, one that embraces the new reality of work and blends our personal and professional lives to a much greater extent. Instead of the towering skyscrapers from the twentieth century, a visual representation of an apartment above a storefront might be a closer depiction to where we are heading. If that means one less character like David Brent, then the future of work might be alright after all.

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