Out of Office: Renewing Civic Culture in the Age of Coronavirus
Executives are worried about office culture in a work-from-home world. Civic and neighborhood culture are longer-lasting and more important for healthy societies.
It’s automated out-of-office reply season again. That time of year when you can expect emails from European colleagues or clients to go unanswered until next month. And nervous emails from American colleagues sent off-hours from the darkest corners of their beach rentals.
I am particularly fond of a line in German out-of-office replies: Ihre E-Mail wird nicht weiter geleitet. Your email will not be forwarded.
The context is clear. “I’m gone. Deal with it.”
It’s cliche for Americans to complain about (or pine for) Europeans’ long summer vacations and generous benefits. But a quick look at the data shows that Europeans might be on to something. Productivity (GDP per hour worked) is higher in Germany and the EU than the United States. (This reflects technological advancement as much as worker effort and skill, so take it with a grain of salt).
Fun facts aside, Americans are grappling with the future of our work culture six months into a pandemic. For professionals who can work from home, the shift has meant longer hours and more meetings, at least early on in the pandemic. Pressure to appear engaged led to more late-night emails, though that adjusted back to normal after a few months of the routine. Research by the George Mason University Wellbeing Lab found that of those working from home during the pandemic, only about 21% felt positive about returning to the office.
And while that trepidation might have more to do with continued health concerns as virus cases ebb and flow, increased time at home gives us an opportunity to reconsider how much time we were spending in the office in the first place.
Still working, after all these years
Back in 1930, John Maynard Kenyes predicted that technological advances would ultimately lead to a 15-hour work week. In advanced countries like Great Britain and the United States, automation of routine tasks would free workers up to focus on family or leisure activities. By spreading out the remaining work, most citizens could now enjoy the leisure time reserved in the past for the independently wealthy. Some might loaf during their five-day weekends, but others would paint or tinker. Everyone would be happier.
It hasn’t worked out that way. While the total number of hours worked in the US has declined over the past 40 years, it has increased among college-educated professionals. And Americans work more hours on average than any other country in the G7 (the largest global economies in the world), including Japan.
‘Creative Class’ economics and workaholism
In 2019, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic diagnosed the white-collar American office culture as the “Religion of Workism.” The search for purpose at work has become an all-consuming end goal. And while that has led to deep fulfillment for a lucky few, it’s also led to anxiety and burnout for others. Career focus came at the expense of civic focus. Late nights and weekends in the office at the expense of church attendance.
The growth of this culture of workaholism coincided with research in economics that elevated coincidental human interaction as the spark of creativity and innovation. Cities and regions benefitted from “agglomeration effects,” in which clusters of companies in the same industries learned and refined their production and businesses models as they competed with one another. Workers would also exchange more ideas if they had more opportunities to collide. These “knowledge spillovers” were crucial for competitivness in the Knowledge Age.
Richard Florida’s translation of this research for policymakers became the new theory of the “Creative Class.” Instead of suburban office campuses where trade secrets were safely secured, companies moved to urban offices with shared spaces and coffee houses where casually dressed engineers and developers traded shop notes and collaborated across teams — sometimes even across companies. For this creative class, the lines between work, home and leisure blurred. They sought walkable urban areas with parks and coffee shops and restaurants and vibrant music scenes. City planners and urban politicians redeveloped long disinvested urban neighborhoods and brownfield industrial sites, pouring money into transit projects to attract this new group — often with impressive results.
Some companies subtly encouraged long hours, turning offices into one-stop shops where young software developers and marketers could eat, take naps, play basketball, all within a 2-minute walk to their desks. Some said Silicon Valley, a leader in this trend, had become the new company town, just this time with no generational debt and much cooler devices. For others, tech companies and their imitators were just giving this creative class the millennial American Dream — Work with a Purpose.
No one would deny the benefits of purpose-driven work. Taking pleasure in one’s work can turn long hours and difficult problems into puzzles to be solved rather than burdens to be endured. But that can’t work for everyone, and we shouldn’t expect it to. While the Creative Class vision provided a blueprint for the educated professional, it promised a bit less for the service sector workers required to keep the lifestyle afloat.
One thing this movement did get right — two generations into our national experiment with suburbanization and car-dominant culture, Americans were hungry for a public square. Office spaces designed for informal interaction and urban settings with variety and activity provided something that our single-use suburban neighborhoods did not.
Bringing the ‘third place’ home
With less time in the office, the rythms of the water cooler and the hallway consultations have come to an end, replaced in many cases by more planned Zoom chats. That is certainly a loss, but probably not as big a loss as it would have been 10 years ago. Economist Matthew Clancy’s preliminary research on COVID-19 effects found that the value of knowledge spillovers from in-person work had been declining. In many fields, in-person contact now has no measurable benefit over remote work. What’s more, many industries see no drop off in productivity and an increase in flexibility by using remote work.
While the economic benefits of in-person contact might be waning, the personal and psychological effects are not. Now that we are likely to spend more time in our homes and neighborhoods, it is time to start thinking about how we can recreate these experiences in our neighborhoods. Now, more than ever, is the time to encourage the development and maintenance of “third places,” inexpensive or free, public or semi-public gathering places where people of all social stations can meet and mix. While coronavirus still prevents many restaurants, coffee shops and some bars from opening, longer-term efforts to sustain and grow these community assets will be important in the coming years. Cities and towns should encourage suburban and neighborhood zoning policies that encourage small restaurants with outdoor seating, public WiFi spots, and development of “pocket parks” on vacant lots.
Let’s use this time away from the office to build better ties at home and in our neighborhoods. A strong civic culture will benefit business, too.
Chuck McShane is an economic researcher and a storyteller in North Carolina. This article originally appeared in my weekly e-mail newsletter “Growth and Dreams.”