Head office: The silent killer

Author Ian Russel provides three reasons for large corporates' apparent aversion to remote working.

The Covid-19 virus outbreak has reminded all of us of the inherent danger of bringing large groups of people together in one place.  Yet, despite the closure of schools in many countries, cancellation of huge sporting events and many other professional gatherings, most head offices of large corporates remain resolutely open and in a ‘business as usual’ state.

Why is this?  Well, I have argued before that ties to head offices are much deeper than anyone is prepared to say. Big businesses love big, shiny, expensive offices. Don’t believe me? Just look around you.

Yet just a few years ago, the end of the physical office space was widely predicted, as mobile, location-independent working was seen as the future for most employees. But why has this trend not materialised? 

Three simple reasons: business ego, the role a building plays in reinforcing employee hierarchy and control, and the social cohesion that being together in one place creates for groups of employees. The office bleeds the business dry because, not only are running costs and overheads massive, real estate, combined with a  lack of trust creates an employee ‘presenteism’ problem. There is also the inward cost in the nature of a head office in so far as it detracts from having a customer focus. Organisations start to believes that it is as important as the ego statement of the building itself. That’s all before we even talk about COVID 19 type risks.

In the below excerpt from my bestselling book, The Other End of the Telescope, I lay out a new reality for us.

Every major city in the world appears to be full of huge, shiny, tall buildings, built to worship the capitalism god. It doesn’t matter whether you are in New York, Bangalore or Johannesburg, the cityscape is littered with cranes and builders putting up new, ever taller and ever more complicated structures.

These buildings seem to naturally cluster - the banking buildings like being next to each other, the lawyers’ skyscrapers huddle together for warmth (or billable income), the management consultants all hang out together, drinking flat whites presumably. But wait. This is 2020 right? Wasn’t it only 20 years or so ago that people were widely predicting the demise of the office as the de facto working space, with remote working patterns taking over as employees celebrated the laptop as the shackle-breaking tool of the 21st century.

Yet the advent of the iPhone, the tablet revolution, the development of ever powerful, lightweight laptops, video-conferencing, the pervasiveness of broadband still hasn’t changed the essence of the daily commute to the office for most people.

So why, against all odds, are there more corporate buildings being built than ever before? In my experience, in many companies and many cities around the world, in many cultures, I would suggest that there are three core drivers behind the corporate office behemoths.

1 Ego

Size matters. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. A big, tall, glass and steel monstrosity, pointing publicly and phallically towards the sky is an egotistical statement of success for so many businesses and (dare I whisper it) their CEOs. Among other egocentric statements, the building is supposed to convey the following messages: 

  • This business is one that you can trust
  • We have a bigger, more expensive office than our competitors because we make more money.
  • You can see that we trust our future growth path, we have confidence that in 20 years’ time we will still be able to afford the toilet rolls that this buildings’ occupants will need.
  • We are strong and ambitious, reaching towards the sky.
  • Our nine coffee shops include one that poor people can use because we are socially responsible. 

2 Control

An office creates control. Formal control and informal control. It creates structure. It reinforces hierarchy, through the positioning of offices, the respective size of your desk, the number of windows you have and so on. It has rules which are written down (go through this entrance, wear your ID cards at all times, and so forth), and unwritten rules that everyone knows about such as, ‘no-one can see us smoking down here’ and ‘the coffee shop here is for the techies.’

An office by definition creates transparency. Managers can see that their employees have turned up today. They look across an open plan office and see what’s going on. The more paranoid ones can check the turnstile records for attendance data and working hours information.

Information can be shared quickly and consistently to multiple groups of people.

An office looks productive for your customers. It can be busy with noise and people looking reassuringly occupied.  Fundamentally, an office allows management to assert, retain and enforce control over a workforce. Pure and simple.

In fact, it is just like being at school in almost every way. Re-read the above but replace ‘management’ with ‘teaching staff’. Does it still make sense? You bet it does. Coincidence? I rather think not. It is just like being in a manufacturing plant in almost every way. Re-read the above but replace ‘management’ with ‘factory supervisors’. Does it still make sense? You bet it does. Coincidence? I rather think not. The office is about conformity, control and the assertion of power plays. Just like a school, just like a factory. 

3 Social glue

I am not a psychologist, but almost every tome that you pick up on the building of teams and the level of productiveness and creativity that comes from a productive team will emphasise the importance of physically being together, and working together in a shared environment.

Personally, I would rather that shared environment was the pub, but the reality for most of us is that is our workplace. It is where we get the chance to talk about the television shows from last night, discuss how crap the boss is and complain that the price of bread is ridiculous. The office is our social glue. It is what binds us to a group of people who broadly are working on the same type of things.

It is where we can share ideas, brainstorm our way through problems and come up with new ways of doing business in a collegiate, rounded, and hopefully safe way.  Many people spend more time in the office than they do in their beds, more time with their colleagues than they do with their family, more time in the office coffee shop than in their own kitchens. In reality, the workplace is a home from home.

The rules, the structure, the confined environment creates the sense of belonging, tribal security and habitat that makes most us humans feel comfortable.  So there you have it. The traditional office still makes sense in the face of the technology onslaught and dangers like COVID 19 because it allows companies to flaunt their egos, management to exert control, and worker bees to part of a safe tribal experience.

Unsurprisingly, I have a somewhat different view.  For you see, that shiny corporate warehouse is in danger of killing your business, and possibly even you.