The Olympics changed how we work: Now let's decide the future of the office

Office workers have abandoned London to escape the Olympic queues — but the decision to embrace flexible working shouldn't be temporary. It's time to rethink the way we work

After a week of the Olympics, London remains abandoned by its usual inhabitants, populated only by bemused tourists who poke around its famous streets like archaeologists exploring a long-deserted city.

The capital is in the midst of a gigantic working-from-home experiment: hundreds of thousands of office workers have retreated to the suburbs, scared out of the city centre by dire predictions of gridlock and internet outages . Whole office buildings are closed, or reduced to a skeleton staff whose steps echo round the empty cube farms. 

Empty London street
London is in the grip of a home-working experiment. What lessons can we learn from the Olympics?

Remote working makes you more effective — and richer. The technology to allow us to work wherever we want is stable and mature, and the advent of the cloud means we can access applications and data wherever needed. Cutting unnecessary journeys is good for the environment and makes our cities more enjoyable.

And yet, after the Olympics are over, my fear is that Londoners will resume their commute to the office as if nothing had ever happened.

A design relic

While the great Olympic working-from-home experiment should kick-start a rethink of how we organise our working lives, it won't. The modern office is a strange relic, an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries designed to allow managers to keep an eye on indolent staff.

Vintage office
Offices were designed for managers to keep an eye on indolent staff.

At the time it made sense: the tools of work — typewriters and adding machines — were wrought-iron mechanical beasts that no worker could afford, or would want to have in their homes. Later, the early computers could fill a room, let alone a desk.

Now all of that processing power fits in a pocket, and yet we're still working in the office pretty much as it was designed 100 years ago. Even the voguish bring your own device (BYOD) debate revolves around which piece of hardware you should bring to the office.

The implication: it doesn't matter what device you use, and who pays for it, as long as you are sitting at your desk where the boss can see you. And yet the very concept of work has changed.

Changing nature of work

There was a time when work was about focusing on one task or document all day long. But many of our working lives are now riven with and driven by interruption: as well as business usage of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, social media is being baked into the enterprise apps that we use.

With every advance, the demand that workers must be at their desks every day takes another blow. For many, the working day starts with checking email over breakfast and continues into the evening: the 9 to 5 is an anachronism, so the office has to change too.

This does not mean the end of the office, of course. For many, the idea of working permanently from home would be horrifying. Teams need to meet and work together, and there are still moments of serendipity that only seem to happen in a face-to-face environment.

But we need this grand Olympic remote-working experiment to jump-start a conversation around how we organise our working lives. After all, to spend an hour on a slow train with your face wedged in somebody's armpit, just for the privilege of using a PC half as good as the laptop you've got at home, suggests that we've still got some thinking to do.