Okay, so it is not quite the question asked in Hamlet, but it is really a question that a lot of businesses and workers are asking themselves right now during international lockdowns. If you find yourself asking, “Where will I work?” or “Do we need to pay for an office?” then you are probably thinking about the short term and that makes a lot of financial sense. However, I think this is a much larger question. The question that really needs answering is “What makes us Human?” The answer to that is “people.”
My background study, before I became a mountain man living off in the mountains as a hermit, was around cultural and forensic Anthropology. It was a wonderful area of study for me because it helped answer many of the questions that I had about what makes us Human and why people behave in the ways that they do. What sets us apart from the wild is our organization into societal structures that we have created to ensure our collective survival from the elements and threats.
Being around people is not just an elective thing we do on the weekend with friends in a restaurant, it is a deeply instinctual psychological need from a million years of evolution and myriads of millennia of organizing larger societies. It is such a powerful psychological need that when you are away from other people for long enough periods of time you develop what is commonly referred to as “Cabin Fever.” I experienced this myself as I lived in the mountains for over a year alone with only a stray dog to keep me company. I would drive across mountains, more than an hour away, just to buy a loaf of bread in Walmart to experience the comfort of being around people after months alone.
Being isolated and alone can actually contribute to your death as well. Historically, one of the worst punishments that could be handed down upon a bad actor in a village or tribe was to be banished and ostracized from society. That is because you’d not have the safety of a larger group or a stable supplies of sustenance to keep you alive. As we have developed scientific observation and medical study, it has become apparent that isolation away from others causes early death through increased morbidity and mortality rates attributed to loneliness and isolation. Our psychological stresses increase inflammation, stress, cholesterol, and mental illness that lead to early death. Simply put, we have to be around others for our health.
In our modern society, this has carried over into our workplace. We are organized in miniature hierarchical tribes where people join either for pay or for achievement. Our motivating factors are different from person to person, but they largely revolve around being part of a group where we can work towards a common goal and achieve success. It is a need to be part of something larger than ourselves.
We have seen a trend of co-working spaces popping up across the globe from both small and large companies allowing so-called digital nomads, remote workers, and independently-minded entrepreneurs to have an office workplace around others with many amenities they have grown accustomed to that allow them flexibility away from a rigid structure. Why don’t they simply work 100% remotely from home? To answer that, we have to look at motivations that people have for work.
During this crisis, there’s a lot of talk about huge waves of remote-only work or that businesses will simply eliminate physical offices all together. That may work for some workers who prefer to just punch in for their assignments and clock out for personal endeavors, like a lone wolf, but I don’t feel that will be something that the majority of people will feel comfortable with after the novelty of working from home wears off. That is where Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation comes into play along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The two work in concert, but I will briefly address Herzberg.
For the workforce, jobs are broken down into Hygiene Factors — encompassing things such as income levels and job security — and also Motivation Factors –- encompassing the psychological aspects of the job such as a sense of belonging, doing something meaningful, and being part of a cohesive team –- which coalesce into the overall experience of working for a company or group. Each person has different motivations, like some just wanting prestige of job positioning, but you can’t have one aspect of the Two-Factor requirements without the other. One side will outweigh the other side if it is lacking and the employee will be unhappy. So, you could increase someone’s pay a great amount but if they feel isolated and unhappy then they will end up leaving to find another more enjoyable work experience. These are components of management that are taught to managers and in business school as necessary to the health of a company.
When you remove people from the workplace, where they are not feeling like an active and valuable member of the organization, they will end up leaving. This is often overlooked in the short-term discussion about working from home and decentralizing. This is one of the most important factors into why I feel that work-from-home will not be sustainable across the board for companies. There may be some sections of the workforce, based on personality type, who will opt-in to work remotely fulltime, but I do not see it being rolled out across entire industries or even large companies.
After these rolling lockdowns begin to end, I think that people will be starved to be around their coworkers and friends that they won’t be thinking about staying at home anymore. That will be their last desire. Who knows, WeWork may even pick back up and be host to many new and returning “nomads” to gain some semblance of normalcy back where they can have a visceral sense of security and comfort around others happy to be back in the office.
We spend a large portion of our lives at work. We are driven to be there for a purpose and people around us believing-in and striving for the same goals is an empowering feeling. We need it. We also make a lot of our friends through work and some even find their spouses in the workplace. The office is more personal than it may seem on the surface. It’s the people that make it worth it. And it’s the people that we will go back to.
Why? Because we are Human. We need each other.