I have almost no clue what office life is like. And I really mean ‘almost no clue’. Over several decades of professional work, my entire experience of office life consists of four hours working as a receptionist at a shipbroker’s in the City. I was so bad they sacked me by lunchtime: I didn’t even make it through the first day.
Chastened by this trauma, I thereafter vowed I would never do another hour of paid work in an ‘office’, and I have stuck to my principles. I have never been woken by a horrible alarm at 7am; instead, for all my life, I have heroically kept on sleeping until about 10.30. Likewise, I have never knowingly been caught in the ‘rush hour’; instead I sometimes stand at my window around 6pm and look at all the people hurrying for trains and then I remember it is time for a gin-and-tonic.
My lifestyle wouldn’t be to the taste of Sir James Dyson who recently demanded that we ‘must go back to the office’, because working from home is a ‘productivity disaster’. But I also know Dyson is right.
How can this be so, you may ask, as you read this on the 07.49 from Southend to Liverpool Street, even as I lie snoring in my bed? My answer is this, because I have always worked from home (or the beach, or a bustling little cafe) I know that WFH really does have disadvantages, compared to office work. At the core of Dyson’s argument is that people need to get together, physically: to collaborate, to develop, and to be mentally creative. This sounds paradoxical but it is true.
If you work from home all the time you tumble into a kind of psychological silo. I think this way; I do things thus; I prefer this particular sandwich made by me; now I will have thisidea – and I won’t pay much serious attention to others. You don’t encounter different thought processes which change you and challenge you. And you don’t encounter them in person, which seems to be crucial.
There is no doubt an evolutionary reason for this human need to physically congregate. We evolved as hunter gatherers, as teams on the plains stalking deer together; the rest of the time we would sit round the fire swapping news, stories, updates. Tribes which successfully shared information about better hunting prospects over the river did better than tribes which didn’t. And if you really want to drive a point home, you have to do it in the actual presence of the other person, or other people, who can sense the immediate emotions, and read the body language around the room.
There is, in other words, some alchemy that happens when humans interact, face to face, which simply does not occur over a phone, a screen, a text: think of the way jokes so often fall flat on Zoom. Different minds sitting a few feet away, telling us things, are the flints to our steel, and together they make the sparks of creation.
I realised this problem quite early in my WFH writing life – you need other people – and my personal solution was: if you’re in all day, go out every evening. Go travelling as much as possible. Make sure you meet humans you would never otherwise meet. This is, however, a highly particular solution which won’t suit everyone, so the only alternative is Sir James Dyson’s: get on the train, go to the office, and have that unexpectedly intriguing chat by the printer. And now, having made my point, I really have to go, as it is almost 4pm and I fancy a nap.