Charles Handy outlines his vision of the office of the future, a space that combines the camaraderie of the office with the pleasures of working from home
We have tried turning the home into the office, and for some it has worked well. But I think now is perhaps the time to try and turn the office into the home – but without its drudgeries and distractions.
What do I mean by the drudgeries of home? Well, first of all the persistence at home of cleaning everything before and after use. My wife used to delight in the polished sheen of a mahogany dining table but for me, who is responsible for creating the sheen, every smudge is a sign of new drudgery. The distractions mostly come from small children and pets.
So can I have the companionship that I treasure and the comforts that I love without all these drudgeries and distractions? How did my ancestors manage it? Well of course they created the gentleman’s club, many of which now line the streets of Pall Mall and St James.
So I distracted myself recently by designing my fantasy office. It won’t look like the sort of colonial mansions of old, it’ll be much more contemporary, probably located in the eastern side of London to acknowledge that’s where the new intelligentsia are drifting. It will be more curvilinear than straight lined, contemporary and sleek rather than traditional. A place of allure however, somewhere you want to belong to, you want to go into.
Once in, there are servants everywhere, unlike at home. And what you notice first is that there are lots of rooms but they are not allocated to people with names on the door, but to activities. So there’s a room for eating, very important. There is a library full of books but also large sofas and very comfortable armchairs smelling mustily of learning and an invitation one might say, to somnolence as long as it is silent.
There are meeting rooms galore and private offices that you can book if you want to be alone. There is a very sophisticated tech office with every convenient sort of computer magic laid on and a technical assistant to show you how to access the various features.
There are changing rooms and showers for weary commuters or sweat stained cyclists. But the dominant feature is the food counter, which runs the length of the room. Reminding you more and more that this is not an office but something like the first class lounge at an airport terminal. There is comfortable seating everywhere, some work stations around the room but mostly just coffee tables and this enormous food counter.
A hot breakfast is served for free, every morning, from nine o’clock on, encouraging an early start. But when you arrive, you pick up your cell phone from where it’s been charging overnight in the entrance hall and promise never to turn it off, because that is your contact mechanism.
After you’ve had your breakfast, you can settle down to plan your day. Many will book an office, some will go out to meet architects, clients or contractors or planners. Others will go home. Everyone will spend at least one half a day a week working from home, still with their cell phone on of course.
At the food counter, alcohol has to be paid for or signed for. So in the evening, the place resembles a sort of supper club, with great camaraderie. The kind of stuff that I wanted at home but never had with my friends.
It is a room of great companionship. One of the senior partners sits in a sort of glass office at the end of the lounge where he can pop out when he sees someone he wants to have a cup of coffee with, or an informal talk. Or we could signal to him or her, that we’d like a little chat, and he’d come out. It is all very smart-casual but sleek and efficient.
There is even a presentation room if they or any client wants to make a presentation. Equipped with all the latest visual aid technology of course, everything here is very modern.
So how much time do people spend in the office? Well, the informal rule is that all meetings should be on Wednesday and Thursday if possible, so people tend to be in at midweek. But it is such a pleasant place to be and so easy to work in that it draws people in, particularly early in the morning and in the evening. And there’s a wonderful feeling of camaraderie and companionship.
Though I don’t expect my old company, Shell, to suddenly turn itself into a business class lounge, I do think the elements of the club culture will start to creep into the corporate world as people want to have some of the comforts of home without the drudgeries and distractions of it. Where it is a pleasure to go to work and a delight to be there whilst still allowing you to creep off home – if that’s where you work best. And so we may well be drifting to a world of home work and office meeting. And, left a lot to our own discretion as to what the mixture will be.
To me this seems ideal. I don’t like to be a human resource or to be told when to work or how to work. I like the camaraderie of the office but I like the individual pleasures of being alone at home. If I can manage to have both then I am well pleased. So whether my fantasy office ever comes to reality, we shall see.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.