Friday, March 10, 2023

Offices may vanish like men’s hats

.           John F. Kennedy leaves the White House after visiting on Jan. 19, 1961.

     Twenty years ago, I wrote a book about the death of men’s hats. A strange subject, yes. But I was curious. You’d see these photos of, say, men at a baseball game in the 1920s. A sea of identical straw hats. That uniformity vanished. Why?
     I spent several years researching the topic — and no, it wasn’t John F. Kennedy. He was following the trend, not leading it. The Kennedy era is when people started to really notice the change.
     What happened was this. There were two practical reasons for men to wear a hat: first, to keep warm; second, and most importantly, as a sign of social status. Hats were expensive, and a well-maintained hat showed its wearer as a man of means. Or not. “You get a couple of spots on your hat and you’re finished,” Willy Loman observes in the 1947 tragedy, “Death of a Salesman.”
     That changed. Men weren’t waiting for streetcars and buses as much. They were in automobiles. Which had heaters. A fancy hat wasn’t needed to impress that clerk. Your credit card did the talking. After the practical uses eased, the social necessity followed. The bottom line: men wore hats because they had to, and once they didn’t have to, they stopped. For decades there was talk about hats coming back, but they never did and never will. They became superfluous, an occasional luxury.
     Jump to 2023. This dynamic came tumbling back as I watched the latest round of businesses and government leaders vowing that their workers were coming back to the office. Any moment now. Three days a week. Or two. Or one. Starting soon. To enjoy that magic synchronicity that comes from being at the office. Lured by foosball and cocktail hours.
     When the truth is, people went to the office because they had to. And now they don’t.
     COVID, like Kennedy, drove home the new reality. Many people can do their jobs without ever setting foot in the office. Thanks to technology, smartphones and laptops, we can sit in our pajamas and process claims or design bridges or write columns.
     Now look at going into an office. The average commute in Chicago is 32 minutes. An hour lost right there. Add in office chatterboxes, treks to Starbucks, restaurant lunches. You get more work done at home. Bosses tend to overvalue being in the office and under their watchful eye.

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19 comments:

  1. From what I see from a business perspective is that on Tuesdays-Thursdays we are at about 65 percent back ( I get and review these numbers as part of my job). That’s far from nothing. It’s been pretty steady for the past year. It’s only about 20 percent Mondays. 10 percent Fridays. I suspect Friday’s will end up never coming back and stopping altogether. Maybe Mondays too. But I see no evidence that we are ever going to have workplaces shut down completely. .

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  2. Hatless Jack, an all time favorite NS book! Office-ing being yet another opportunity to look at what is 'nomal' now, that will soon seem absurd once disappeared. Why haven't high heels gone the way of hats?

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  3. I think you're missing a key element of working in an office together and that is the sense of community and connectedness that can enhance the creativity, collaboration, enthusiasm, and support that can occur among us to heighten the unleashing of our potential, purpose, power, and passion. Too bad leadership wasn't/isn't more aware of that possibility and more imaginative in creating environments where diverse people can come together in psychologically safe environments of mutual trust and respect that optimize our participation, contributions, and self expression.

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    1. I think the key word in your remarks is "can." Of course it CAN. But does it? Is that your experience? Is it anybody's? I would suggest that your idealized view of what an office can be has very little practical value, and I'm wondering what prompted you to bring it up.

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    2. I have worked remotely primarily for seven years, well before the pandemic, and I assure you that the sense of community and connectedness that can lead to creativity is still available with remote work. In fact, people who are better rested, and don't have to spend an hour a day commuting do better work and are happier. My last in-person job required roughly two hours a day of commuting -- 45 minutes in the morning and at least an hour and 15 in the afternoon, and that was working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. so I could avoid the worst of the traffic. I'm happier, better rested, well-respected by my colleagues and clients, have great relationship with my coworkers, more than half of whom are located elsewhere in the country anyway. I have more money in my pocket because I don't have to pay for gas, parking or public transportation and I'm never tempted to order in lunch or get take out. Let's not even think about "business casual" clothing I no longer have to worry about. I have more free time in the evenings to do what I love. And I work in a creative field, for the record. Employers want everyone back in the office because they're paying too much for office space no one is using. Mayors and governors want us back in the office because real estate property values for downtown areas are falling and therefore property tax revenue will fall as well. It's not even a little bit about what is necessary to do a good job.

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    3. I think there is value in going to the office. Comradery, exchange of ideas, just keeping up with all that’s going on, all of these have value. But it doesn’t have to be 5 days a week. I go in to the office once or twice a week (never Monday or Friday) and actually kind of enjoy it. Pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy doing it Monday through Friday.

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    4. I worked remote nearly full time for the good part of twenty years, from 98-17. From 98-05, I was full time remote and actually had four phone lines in my house (Personal home, personal data, business and business data). For a year or so, my boss was local so I was in to see her a few days a week. When I got a new boss in 2006, he was in Texas. Worked for him for about a year, then got a new boss in NJ. He was my boss for the next ten years. I met him once and then only because I went on a trip east with my wife and we stopped by at the office. Got a new boss who I had for a year until I got downsized. He was in Texas, never met him.

      Now maybe my experience isn't typical but it was in the firm I worked in. What was the point of going in when my boss and my entire team, as well as the people I worked with, were out of state. As to collaboration, I don't think I missed a beat. It's all dependent on circumstance and there aren't that many jobs where it's that important.

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  4. It’s my experience that an office environment encourages synergy. You get to know people outside of your own work group too just by heading downstairs for lunch on the same elevator. It’s not the control of people - it’s the face-to-face dynamics that are missing with all remote. We aren’t going to see the full negative impact until all the people who know each other from working together in person have quit or retired and those left only know people’s faces from a screen. Nothing else. It sounds chilly and cold. I still have wonderful friends from my office experience. Plus on that commute, people read books and newspapers - all those things that are going away because no one has time or wants to read them. I’m sorry for this new trend. Take the bosses are bad people out of the equation too. There are some bad apples in all groups!

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  5. I have never worked in an office nor do I wear hats. Still I find the subject matter very entertaining and informative, especially the demise of the hat. I often was amazed to see these old photographs where all the people were wearing hats. I think that the class distinction could also be determined by the type of hat. I have seen a picture of you with a hat. Kind of a smashed thing with a brim. I'm sure they have a name. Certainly not a fedora You look terrific

    As far as the comment about collaboration in an office circumstance, I'm sure it happens. It must considering that we are surrounded by all these wonderful modern accoutrement, it's hard to imagine that they're all the result of a single person in a solitary circumstance

    My cousin worked for GE. It seemed like it took hundreds of people to design a switch. I don't know. I'm glad I missed out on all of it

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  6. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I'm conflicted. I voluntarily commute to the office 2-3 times a week from the suburbs (~50 minutes door to door) and this recently discovered Kurt Vonnegut quote illustrates why:

    [When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know... The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

    It's not so much the productivity gain I get from going in, it's the social connection. I see and talk to people that I wouldn't otherwise. I learn things that I wouldn't otherwise, both about work and non-work. Plus I'm less of a jerk in person than I am online. And yet I do appreciate the more relaxed morning routine of my WFH days.

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    1. Spot on. Yesterday the Book Bin asked me to come by and sign some more stock. So I rode my bicycle, because it's only a few blocks. On the way I stopped by the bank. "How's she riding?" a banker said, or words to that effect. I ride an eye-catching one-speed Schwinn with wide whitewall tires. Then to the bookstore, where of course I chatted with Alli. Then to Sunset for blueberries. By the time I was done, I felt like a bear in a Richard Scarry book.

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    2. Way before COVID we've been moving further and further away from connectivity. Online classes. Amazon. Grub Hub. Telemedicine. etc.
      All of it is making us lose sight of what it means to be human. What it means to be a part of all of what is going on around us.
      There is no substitute for face to face interaction.
      Even if it means just farting around.
      Kurt was right about so many things. I wish he was around now just to hear what he'd have to say.

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    3. Every day I thank Rhonda (she's my Higher Power, as in "Help me, Rhonda") that I retired from the rat race in 2012 and no longer have to deal with the dilemma of working from home versus commuting to an office Either way, it can feel like being on an endless wheel in a hamster cage. I don't miss those feelings at all.

      When I worked in the 'back offices' of LaSalle Street brokerage firms, back in the day ( the early Eighties), I felt like I was truly in the hamster cage. Open offices with rows of desks, clouds of tobacco smoke, terrible Muzak, and non-stop noise, chatter, and banter, some of it work-related, some not. Not even any desktop computers yet, just spreadsheets and files and phones.

      And there was always, always that relentless, crushing, overwhelming pressure...to keep your accounts straight and up to date, and to put the trades through. Doing the work of three people, in a highly unpleasant environment..

      I finally had to walk away, and I swore to God (this was before I knew Rhonda) that I would never again put myself in such a position. At 34, I was crying while walking to the train (Aside: I only took jobs in the Loop that were accessible by rail... because I hated driving to work in the suburbs, even in the summertime. So I didn't. Probably an unwise decision. But I LIKED riding on the Evanston Express. Go figure, huh?).

      Fast forward a few years. I worked for a law firm and I made next to nothing at 40, less than newly-minted college graduates, but I enjoyed what I did and my bosses even turned a file storage room into a private office for me (WOW!) I faced serious financial struggles (okay, I was one of those "poor Jews"), but at least I wasn't crying on the way to work anymore.

      Time didn't march on, it ran. In my mid-fifties,(the early Aughts) I was an unemployed freelance magazine writer. Working from home for a landscape magazine. I hated it. Making phone calls and scribbling rough drafts on a legal pad at the dining room table, in sweatpants and a T-shirt, didn't feel kosher at all. I had an overwhelming feeling of isolation from the world of responsible adulthood, and I felt like a complete loser. All of my successful middle-aged cohorts were at an office, wearing business clothes, and here I was in a silent neighborhood of empty houses and deserted sidewalks, at home with the kitties.

      It was far too easy to procrastinate and to find diversions. Pet those kitties. Eat a sandwich. Eat another sandwich. Go outside and sniff the air. Watch the noon nooze. Take a nap. Take a walk. Had I been in an office, I'd have been forced to meet deadlines and be disciplined and wear a tie and act like a grown-up. And to get the job done. Working at home meant it was just too damned easy to do a lot of farting around. And I saw nobody and talked to nobody. Only people I ever saw were the mothers pushing strollers, or those solitary daytime dog-walkers..

      Eventually, I became a copy editor and a proofreader. I was glad be back in an office, even that of an unknown suburban trade magazine. But cost-cutting and downsizing meant that I had to revert to WFH, proofing and editing copy at the kitchen table. I had no choice.

      I found the only way I could avoid the usual distractions was to go on "third shift." I would start at midnight and work until dawn, then sleep until afternoon. Crazy? Probably. And creepy. During one nocturnal marathon, I heard a noise behind me, and turned to find a kitty scrambling across the kitchen floor. He was chasing a centipede in my direction, and it was the size of a Buick. Not something you'd normally experience in a downtown office.

      I continued with this charade (more of a last hurrah, actually) until I turned 65. Then the magazine died, and I retired. For the last nine years I've been a volunteer at Habitat For Humanity. I get to see human beings. Twice a week. Best "job" I've ever had. Getting old is not all hell. I'm glad I'm not young anymore. Even if you somehow manage to win the rat race, you're still a rat...

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    4. Well-said, Grizz. I could relate to some of what you said, but not the tone, and I tried to figure out why. I guess the scribbling rough drafts in your sweat pants alone part I find fun. First, I'm lucky in that there is usually someone around. Second, isolation becomes me.

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    5. Mucho apreciado for the accolade, Mr. S. I left a lot of years out, because the whine glass was way too full. Maybe that was what you didn't like about the tone. Too noodgy. Too kvetchy. A self-deprecating, cynical complaint. But it's all true, and all immutable history now. A lot of water under a lot of bridges. Why I pissed in the river, I'll leave to the shrinks.

      And just for the record, I was either married or living with somebody during those times.They put up with a lot of tsouris. I thank Rhonda, every day, that I found them, and that they stuck around through thin and thinner, much in the manner of Cub fans.

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  7. The bosses who are fighting this are shortsighted. My erstwhile CEO was a very smart man who, post-pandemic, negotiated a deal with the landlord to get a reduce rent for reduced space. That's a big part of being an effective CEO -- seeing and adjusting for coming trends.

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  8. I have worked "hybrid" for more than two decades. I believe it is the ideal. 3 days at home (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and 2 in the office. You truly get the best of both worlds so long as everyone is doing the same thing and most people like the idea of having the long weekend at home and then the break in the middle so its not hard for people to all agree on this. 2 days of commuting is way less enervating and you get plenty of collaboration and synergy. 3 days is tolerable but the 2 is the best.

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  9. I think you're right that few if any offices that have already eliminated all in-office work will go back to it, but not sure it will develop into all at-home. People do need to meet up occasionally. And because one of the most basic human traits is "the grass is greener over there," by definition once you work at home most of the time, a couple of days where you go somewhere different and actually see people becomes a break--even fun. But it shouldn't surprise us that maybe that's the best thing, because moderation generally is. It will be radically better for where people actually LIVE to not have entire neighborhoods devoid of all adult life five days a week except caretakers of the occasional preschool child not consigned to all-day daycare. People forget that before women could really have good careers generally, neighborhoods were alive in a way they were not when my kids were small. And more kids can come home after school, perhaps, or have somewhat less daycare but instead get to play with their neighbors.

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  10. I woke up today in a bizarre manner, and was then amazed to find today's topic of disappearing offices. I'll explain...

    For several decades I worked for a Chicago subsidiary of a very large software company you have heard of. When my son graduated college in 2016, they hired him too, so for a few years I saw him around the office downtown, prior to my getting laid off (on good terms with a nice severance) at the end of 2018.

    For many years I had spent 3 hours a day, five days a week commuting on the Metra Northwest line from one end to the other, but felt it was worth it for the home, schools and neighborhood we enjoy out here. Before the pandemic, Work From Home was allowed, but more as a special occasion than standard practice. (My son lives much closer to downtown, so his commute was trivial on days when he wasn't WFH himself.)

    He would give me occasional updates on how things were going at the office, who was still there or gone, and I maintained the thought of maybe going back to visit. I was so familiar with the place that I could walk around it blindfolded; it had been such a part of my life that it was burned into my subconscious.

    I knew from my son that they were planning to downsize the office, which took up about 2/3rds of their floor in a North Wacker high-rise, and was now mostly deserted since the pandemic, with almost all the daily staff now WFH on a permanent basis. He had been asked to come downtown and get his personal possessions out of his cubicle prior to an anticipated reworking into a smaller space within the building.

    I heard from him yesterday that the company itself was still doing okay, and he had recently had his annual review and a raise. He then added, "Oh, I heard yesterday that they're going full-time WFH now. They're not remodeling the office. They're just going to give it up and go fully on-line."

    That didn't really hit me at the time. Then we fast-forward to the wee hours of this morning. I was in that goofy mostly-asleep, partially-awake mode where you're vividly dreaming and having conscious thoughts at the same time, and THAT'S when it hit me, hard. It's all gone. The Office, that social, financial and professional anchor that had been my corporate overseer for almost half my life, was simply not there anymore. There was nothing left to go back and visit, no chance to pop in for a quick howdy, and be greeted as some kind of low-level celebrity as I made the rounds of the cubicles. Everyone I knew and remembered would now only be faces on a screen, if I could find them at all.

    So in my slightly potty dreamlike state at 5:00 a.m., the realization of all that got me crying. That's how I woke up this morning. I don't cry, except at the end of "Field of Dreams" or "La-La Land," but the disappearance of our office, The Office, was like losing a piece of my life; it was like all my work had been for nothing.

    I do think we're seeing a sea change in what constitutes corporate life now, and for newer employees who see Working From Home as their daily routine, they will eventually not remember any other way of doing things.

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