Missing the office?
We examine the history of the office, and find out what it’s been like for people forced to work at home during lockdown...
Since lockdown began, the working day has taken a very different form for those able to work at home, in spare bedrooms, sheds, garages or with a laptop on the settee!
There have always been jobs which can only be done in a designated workplace such as certain functions in factories or building sites, although even those will have administrative operations which have most likely been conducted remotely during lockdown. An office seems to be the place where the admin is done, but these days, that could be practically anywhere. At home? In the coffee shop? But where does the tradition of traveling to and from an office to conduct business come from?
Ancient Rome had its own business district, each town containing its forum bounded by shops and offices. It’s the Roman Latin word officium loosely meaning “bureau” that gives us the word we use today. However, with the demise of the Roman Empire, the concept of dedicated office space was largely forgotten, until the 18th Century.
By this time, the kind of work which we now associate with offices was carried out at home, with business owners living on the premises, employing clerks who also lived on-site, combining administrative and household duties. But in 1726, the first purpose-built office building in Britain was constructed in Whitehall for the Admiralty. It is now known as The Ripley Building, after its architect, Thomas Ripley. Then, in 1729, The East India Company opened their headquarters on Leadenhall Street, housing their thousands of employees dealing with the complex business of trade with India and Asia. Author Charles Lamb worked as a clerk at the East India Company and in his diaries he commented on the long hours: “On Friday I was at office from 10 in the morning to 11 at night – last night til 9”.
The 20th century saw the advent of the open-plan office, something many of us are familiar with today. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright envisaged an office like an open plan factory, with few walls. Subsequent variations have seen landscaped workspaces, rooms full of cubicles and modular offices, consisting of flexible, semi-enclosed spaces.
The century progressed and construction innovations enabled taller and taller buildings to eventually allow thousands of workers to inhabit spaces in relatively small square feet of expensive land. Technology continued to advance, from electric lighting, the telegraph, telephone, typewriters, calculators, word processors, computers, the internet, tablets and mobile phones gradually transforming the working day. It is now easier than ever to conduct “office” work from almost anywhere – wi-fi or 4G permitting. For some businesses, this has proved a lifeline during lockdown, as they have been able to continue productive activity from the homes of their employees.
So how has it been, swapping the commute and office politics for a desk shared with family and pets? We asked for feedback...
DEAN HOLDEN, STROOD
I had to be set up from scratch, we had the space and some of the kit but it was a stressful few days. Once done it was business as usual for the whole office; able to start earlier and work longer. No travel and great weather was great; we were able to escape to garden for a break in the sun. It works very well and the team have stayed motivated – however I can see that we need a mix. If we continue working from home during bad weather, there is potential for moods to change. If we look at the positive side and see us coming out of lockdown, then home working will be a great boost to work/life balance; two days from home would be great for me!!
MARK BLACK, SITTINGBOURNE
Having commuted to London for years, it’s now just a stroll along the landing to the office. Initially it was a little stressful with technical glitches setting up remote access to my work computer, but with daily Zoom meetings and conference calls the team are able to work efficiently. I miss the social interaction of the office but do we need to cram ourselves into expensive communal buildings? I can’t see myself doing 5 days in the office ever again! This virus has changed the work landscape.
MARY DOWNIE, ROCHESTER
I work for the Military in Gillingham. During lockdown some staff have been working from home, some going in for a few hours a week and some furloughed at home. While there is a cost to set up home working – supplying IT equipment to staff – it has been a great success. Some people are generating much more work and finding it easier without interruptions. One of the guys in my office has even been working on the odd weekend as he has had nothing else to do. He lives in a flat, so not having a garden means it has helped keep him occupied. People have also noticed the financial saving in train and petrol costs. Some have asked if the working from home can continue when the lockdown is over and we will be looking at it long term. Also, we have meetings several times a year. These generate a lot of expenses as some travel and have to stay overnight, travel and food costs. We have often asked if the meetings can be done via Zoom as some of them don’t last more than a couple of hours. Some people don’t like change and some are old school and have refused. They now had no choice but to do them via Zoom and they have been a great success so this will definitely continue.
JO NEWTON, ROCHESTER
I’ve been working from home since just before lockdown. We are part of the food industry, on the manufacturing side, so we have been working all through this and have never been busier. I realise how lucky we are. The production and warehouse staff have had to be on-site but on the office side, those who can work from home have been doing so. It’s funny listening to everyone’s different experiences. Some people have found it very challenging but personally, I have loved it. I am more productive (I’m doing longer hours and am normally fired up and ready to go by 6/6.30) and don’t have the constant office interruptions. I tend to work through lunch anyway but I make sure I log off at 4pm. I keep in close contact with my team through Zoom chat and we have regular Zoom meetings to make sure we’re all OK. You get the normal IT issues which can be irritating; but they happen when you’re in the office too! I don’t drive and due to the buses, it can take me an hour and a half to two hours to get to work (it’s a 20 minute drive), so potentially I’m saving 4 hours a day! On the few occasions that I’ve needed to go in, the company has paid for taxis. I usually get five buses a day, so this is a huge help and relief at the moment and I’m really dreading having to go back to that. I’ve been doing it for sixteen years and now that I’ve stopped, I realise how tiring it is. From a safety perspective, it really is “germ soup”. My husband is a comedian, so for him the future is still very uncertain. He’s been busy writing but any social distancing, even going down to one meter, makes live comedy impossible at the moment. He’s been great though. We live in a one bedroom flat and he’s relegated himself to the bedroom for half of the day to give me space to work. As soon as I finish, we go for a walk. With no garden, this little bit of outside time has been crucial. I’m looking forward to things going back to normal but while we’ve been in our lockdown bubble we’ve appreciated the little things. A warm sunny day, with fish and chips and a bottle of beer by the castle. FaceTiming friends for a catch-up. It’s made us appreciate that it doesn’t take much to make a day great…but my work being safe has contributed to this. Not having to worry too much about the bills is a huge weight off of our shoulders as we’re not spending much.