No one has their best ideas at their desk. So why do we still go to the office?
In the 20th century, people had to go to the office because that’s where the tools of their trade were: telephones, fax machines, computers. That’s not true any more. With laptops, smartphones, wireless networks and cloud computing, people can work anywhere. When they do go to the office, they’d rather access company networks using their own computers: 53% of workers feel they’re more productive when they use their own devices, while six out of ten companies now have a “Bring Your Own Device” IT policy.
People went to the office because that’s where everyone else was. That’s no longer true either. Companies are often diversified, global networks, with as many contractors and freelancers as permanent staff. Team members don’t work in the same place or even in the same time zone, and they may choose to structure their hours differently.
They went because employers told them to. But in the 21st-century knowledge economy, the power balance has shifted. Employees have a greater say in how they do their jobs. “The number one success factor for many organizations will continue to be talent management,” says Tom Carroll, director of corporate research at JLL in EMEA. “That’s only going to become more pronounced as automation chips away at the more process-driven activities.”
In 2013, 7% of meetings in US workplaces involved a virtual participant. By 2016, this had almost doubled to 13% 
As companies compete to attract the best talent, they are having to rethink traditional approaches to work. Younger workers are much more mobile, says Carroll, both within the office itself and in the places where work is done: “That could be client offices, home, co-working spaces, airports.” A JLL survey of more than 7,300 employees in 12 countries found that 54% worked from home at least once a month, and 34% worked from third places such as cafes or co-working spaces. This is driven by millennials: 47% of under-35s worked from third places, compared to just 27% of over-35s.
Gensler’s US Workplace Survey 2016 found that in the most innovative organizations, employees only spend 74% of their time in the office, the equivalent of 3.5 days a week, compared to 86% at the least innovative companies. Those who spend 80% or more of their time in the office are significantly less satisfied with their jobs and workspace and find less meaning in their work.
Social media start-up Buffer decided to close its San Francisco office in 2015. With a fully distributed team spread around the world, spending so much on a base stopped making sense. Now its 70+ staff work from home, co-working spaces and coffee shops, travelling to meet up just a few times each year.
Will there be anyone left to go to the office?
“We are seeing a change in the way organizations think about a big chunk of their workforce,” says William Kerr, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-director of its Managing the Future of Work initiative. “Rather than lifetime employment, companies are working towards lifetime employability. Now the view is, ‘we want to make sure you value your time here, that you’re productive and constantly learning new skills. But at some point you’re going to go somewhere else, and we want you to look back and say this was a great part of your career’.”
The “dark matter” of the economy is temporary help, as companies have outsourced non-core activities such as maintenance and catering, and support functions such as accounts and customer relations. Historically large companies would directly employ hundreds of thousands of people. “Today we hear more about ‘superstar firms’ that are much smaller in size, but have an enormous impact and generate enormous economic rewards for those who are part of the company.”
The rise of the gig economy will fragment organizational structures even further. Digital platforms and smart devices enable companies to access a vast global pool of talent, and allow footloose workers to pursue new kinds of portfolio careers. “Every single business is having its operations transformed by automation and by access to digital talent platforms — the human cloud,” says Carroll.
The gig economy is a good fit for knowledge work: both prioritize autonomy, measure performance rather than attendance, and judge results, not the process that is used to create them. Upwork, the largest platform for knowledge work, claims to have 12 million registered freelancers, from designers and creatives to marketing experts and accountants.
McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 20-30% of the working age population of the US and Europe engages in independent work. The vast majority are engaged in selling their labour. For some, gig work is a poor, insecure second choice to full-time employment. But MGI found that a significant proportion would prefer to be freelance: if everyone could pursue their preferred working style, 40-50% of the working-age population in the US and Europe would be independent.
That’s one reason why companies still need offices: as an embodiment of their brand and culture. As companies rely on a smaller number of short-lived employees, they must impart their culture and values more powerfully, more quickly. Offices have always been a physical manifestation of a corporate ethos. That’s even more important when some team members may never visit them.
Kerr studied the ultimate superstar firm, Finland-based Supercell, one of the world’s most successful mobile game developers. “There are only about 200 employees at the corporation, but they also have more than 1,000 outsourced player support personnel. Even though the outsourced vendor is a different company, Supercell paid to decorate the facilities of the outsourced vendor to look like Supercell’s own offices.”