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The workplace is losing it’s social relevance

Being an agency.

For 5 decades, the office was the place where the most varied of your social interactions took place. Not so anymore.

The convergence of remote work, social networks, contracted labour and time scarcity has shifted the purpose of the office to a transactional one. And in almost every way it is better – but where does that leave the idea that playing, working, eating and drinking together fosters cooperation and collaboration?

The old concept is grounded in a belief that “friends work better together than acquaintances” – and certainly there is some research that shows a closer-knit group can make better decisions. However, this was based on a belief that friends are more trusting and committed to helping collective success, hence would share more information and spend more time helping. It’s also why Yahoo, Apple and others have strongly encouraged an office-centric approach to life.

Once, work was a major source of friendships. We took our families to company picnics and invited our colleagues over for dinner. Now, work is a more transactional place. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form bonds. We have plenty of productive conversations but fewer meaningful relationships.

New York Times, Sunday Review

Except that’s not really the case anymore. We carry, via social networks, all our friends on our phone and maintaining those friendships is as easy as clicking the “like” button. We’re also seeing the end of traditional office spaces as more work remotely, nomadically or at home. The lack of informal face to face time removes both the need and the desire to form any friendships at work. And finally, the shape of companies has changed beyond all recognition as short-term contracted work, ad-hoc project teams, agile methodology and growth/bust cycles are now the norm.

Put simply, it’s a good deal harder to form relationships in today’s workplace and we have less need to be social whilst there – especially as more and more of us are working solely to fund our leisure time.

So why is this good?

Relationships are complex and in an office with, say, 25 people there might have been anywhere between 100 to 500 distinct relationship paths. As each of these are actively maintained, they evolve over time, adapting to changing circumstances. This requires a lot of energy, and much of it has a negative slant as office politics, bickering, bullying, ring-fencing, cronyism and work/social climbing supplants talent and creativity. It’s nice to see the back of that, I’m sure you would agree!

Time scarcity is one of the greatest challenges facing an “always connected” society – the office banter, watercooler clustering and gossiping can now be done more effectively and safer via technology. In an office-based experiment carried out in 2010, we discovered a staggering 50% of your office-based time is not used in the pure pursuit of work, mostly it’s dead-time spent socialising. Fine if you are time-rich – most of us are not.

And finally, the one-sided nature of office-based social networks create unsustainable networks that very rarely survive organisational change. You will have more friends now that you made during your teen years than all the “work-friends” you’ve had at every previous company you worked for. The mono-dimensional nature has the dual effect of binding when working together, and driving apart when not.

In general, investing time building office-based relationships is wasteful, distracting, expensive, transient, risky and ultimately fruitless. You’re better off investing your social currency on a less interdependent social strata.

That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the office, and be sociable – Hell, the Friday pint & nibbles after work is a great way to unwind. But the days of needing to form strong social bonds with fellow workers just to get ahead, or a job done, have gone, and so will the parasitic practices it created.

By Martin Dower

Backstory: At age 31 (1996), I co-founded a web design agency with a friend I met at work 10 years earlier. I had gone on to work at another 10 companies since then, making lots and lots of social acquaintances, climbing social and career ladders – None of those work relationships lasted outside my employer at the time. In the last 20 years as an agency we’ve employed over 100 people and worked with another 200 – Almost none of those work relationships have outlived the period of work engagement.

We don’t have old-fashioned offices anymore, we killed that approach in 2012 – We use drop-in spaces, depending on locational and operational needs.