Empty Office

The empty office

As we speak, most organisations are figuring out how to manage the transition from Working from Home during lockdown to the post-Covid situation.

Empty Office

In our last newsletter (May 2021), I looked at how remote working fits better with some industries than others. The finance industry topped the list of sectors that lend themselves to continue working remotely. At Nomadic IBP, our vision is that remote working can be equally productive, meaningful and satisfying as remote working, but on June 3, an article in the UK newspaper the Guardian article presented an interesting contrary perspective.  

The author, Gillian Tett, looks at informal, interactions and rituals in the workplace from an anthropological perspective and how we might miss those when working remotely. Let me share some highlights from this article with you.

In the summer of 2020, Daniel Beunza, a Spanish social scientist who taught at Cass business school in London, organised a stream of video calls with a dozen senior bankers in the US and Europe. He wanted to know how they had run a trading desk while working from home. Did finance require flesh-and-blood humans?

Beunza had studied bank trading floors for two decades and had noticed a paradox. Digital technologies had entered finance in the late 20th century, pushing markets into cyberspace and enabling most financial work to be done outside the office – in theory. “For $1,400 a month you can have the [Bloomberg] machine at home. You can have the best information, all the data at your disposal, but the digital revolution had not caused banks’ offices and trading rooms to disappear. The tendency is the reverse,” one of the bankers said. “Banks are building bigger and bigger trading rooms.”

Office workers make decisions not just by using models and manuals or rational, sequential logic – but by pulling in information, as groups, from multiple sources. That is why the rituals, symbols and space matter. “What we do in offices is not usually what people think we do,” says Beunza.

As Covid-19 spread, financial institutions suddenly did what Bob had said they never would – they sent traders home with their Bloomberg terminals. What happened?

When Beunza interviewed bankers remotely, he found that respondents were more eager to engage with him from home than in the office, and it felt more intimate. The financiers told him that they had found it relatively simple to do some parts of their job remotely, at least in the short term: working from home was easy if you were writing computer code or scanning legal documents. Teams that had already been working together for a long time also could interact well through video links.

The really big problem was incidental information exchange. “The bit that’s very hard to replicate is the information you didn’t know you needed,” observed Charles Bristow, a senior trader at JP Morgan. “[It’s] where you hear some noise from a desk a corridor away, or you hear a word that triggers a thought. If you’re working from home, you don’t know that you need that information.” Working from home also made it hard to teach younger bankers how to think and behave; physical experiences were crucial for conveying the habits of finance or being an apprentice.

Beunza was not surprised to hear that the financiers were eager to get traders back to the office as soon as they could; nor that most had quietly kept some teams working in the office throughout the crisis. Nor was he surprised that when banks such as JPMorgan started to bring some people back in – initially at 50% capacity – they spent a huge amount of time devising systems to “rotate” people; the trick seemed not to be bringing in entire teams, but people from different groups. This was the best way to get that all-important incidental information exchange when the office was half-full. As one banker put it: “The lack of serendipitous meetings and chats is a significant difference.

chat in the office

Here is the full article and also a recently published book: Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life by Gillian Tett, published by Random House Business.