Do we need to go to offices? Work 9 to 5? At this unique moment in history, employers can rethink everything

Commuters on London Bridge.
Commuters on London Bridge. Photograph: Laurie Noble/Getty Images

here have been few moments in the history of work as pivotal as the one we find ourselves in now. It took a pandemic to normalise remote working, and, despite the fears of many CEOs, most organisations saw no demonstrable loss of productivity. Now, the global workforce is demanding its right to retain the autonomy it gained through increased flexibility as societies open up again. Pre-pandemic, it was not uncommon for an employer to ask staff to justify their need to work from home. Post-pandemic, employees may ask employers to justify the need to come into the office.

Yet many organisations are still resisting this more flexible future. They argue that employees’ wellbeing is compromised by remote working, and that unless they are brought back into the office, many more will suffer from “Zoom fatigue”.

But remote work itself is not the problem. The problem is that, though most office workers are currently working from home, the way we work is still inherently office-centric. For the past nine months, my team and I have been researching how maintaining this way of working in a remote environment is actually what is causing significant damage to employees. It’s never a good idea to force a square peg into a round hole. In today’s context, office-centric work is a square peg and the remote environment is a round hole.

Pretty much all of our work practices – when we work, where we work, how we work – are designed around location. Worse still, they were designed decades ago, and it is only now, with the pandemic forcing change, that we have been given the unique opportunity to question those structures.

Take the “when” of work. By default, our days are organised around 9-5, a system that was formalised for factory workers by Henry Ford in the US in 1926. Many of us do not work in factories however. Why are we hanging on to this linear day as the only schedule in which work can be done? More importantly, the linear day is unsuitable for the remote environment where we do not have concrete signals to start or end our work day, such as the commute or the dress code: 40% of the remote workforce are working longer hours as a result.

What would happen if organisations looked outside this way of working, and trusted employees to set a non-linear schedule, based on their individual circumstances, that kept them healthy, sane and productive?

How about the “where” of work? It is apparent just from the language we use that the office is still viewed as the headquarters for work. Even the term “remote” implies that you are away from the place work is usually done. The dominance of the office was necessary in a time without home internet or laptops, but we are long past needing to prove that work can be done outside an employer-owned space.

The “how” of work was perhaps the most worrying discovery of our research. There is a long-held assumption that the hallowed meeting is the best way for us to collaborate. This culture of meetings was established in the 1950s, before methods of work that allowed us to collaborate outside meetings (back then, that meant memos passed from one secretary to the next) had today’s speed and efficiency (email, instant messaging, shared drives).

Virtual meetings are cognitively draining – when was the last time someone held a mirror in front of you during your in-person chat so your brain had to process your every physical move? Forcing us into more meetings to compensate for the lack of office “water-cooler moments” is only increasing fatigue – our study found that employees are 24% more likely to be emotionally drained by additional meetings. What would happen if we were to work asynchronously by default, and set limits on time spent together during a day, or even a week?

It is these outdated, office-centric work designs that are making us tired. We are not working within systems that are built for the environment we are in. And until organisations stop to reassess why we work the way we do, and fundamentally change those aspects that are significantly outdated and not fit for purpose, fatigue will continue to rise. Bringing people back into the office full time isn’t the answer – workers don’t want to give up the flexibility that gives them greater control of their lives. They want systems that work for the environment they are operating in.

In essence, we need to stop designing work around location, and start designing work around human behaviour. Employees will work better, stay at their organisation longer and keep healthier if they are placed at the centre of work design – trust me, we have the data that proves it.

This is what we should be asking ourselves: if 9-5 had never been invented; if “office” were a foreign term; if the concept of a meeting sounded like gibberish – in short, if today were day one of the history of work – how would you design how you work?