Office work is a religion that is losing followers
In the middle of Cambodia there is a 400 acre site comprising an intricate series of ancient temples. Angkor Wat is so central to the country’s identity that it features on its flag, and yet history has it that the entire complex was nearly lost to history until French colonialists discovered it in the 19th century.
Leaving aside the massively problematic Eurocentric bias in this narrative for a second, imagine a distant future in which the City of London suffers a similar fate. The businesses that once occupied these buildings all move out and the towers are left empty for centuries, until one day a party of explorers arrives at this square mile of once gleaming buildings.
What would they do with it? Visitors to Angkor Wat immediately recognize that it is a site of both political and religious significance with its myriad Hindu temples that had been converted into Buddhist temples centuries later, so what what would this hypothetical group of explorers assume that the people of the City of London once revered?
Money would be an answer, but perhaps too simplistic. Businesses make money, but a business is not a building in the City of London. On the contrary, these buildings testify to the cult of one thing in particular: office work.
If office work is a religion, the post-Covid readjustment to the world of work has shown that not everyone buys into it. The idea of working from a desk has become a preference rather than a norm and, like many ideological schisms in religious thought, has created three distinct camps: those who strongly believe in office work, those who strong believers in working from home (or indeed anywhere) and those who believe in hybrid working.
Similar to arguments about religion, bubbling beneath this discussion is a debate about freedoms. But all of this becomes a trickier issue when business leaders who believe in working in the office insist that their employees adhere to their belief system.
If I had to define my own religious affiliation, it would be as a firm agnostic. I think office work has its perks, but I also think there are a myriad of benefits to working from home. So while an A-level office space in London might be enough to keep people like me coming back to my office (i.e. people who don’t have a particularly strong religious affiliation anyway ), followers of the work-at-home Church are going to be much harder to convert. In fact, it may be more likely that they won’t be converted at all. There are enough of them to have bargaining power as well as the ability to prove they can just as well do their job from the couch with the two-year forced telecommuting experience.
That leaves those businesses with upcoming lease renewals with a decision to make. The real estate office market did not collapse during Covid as companies signing leases for five, 10 or 25 years were hardly going to incur the cost of breaking them just because of a temporary work from home order . However, now that the post-Covid work environment is becoming clearer, those with lease renewals or break clauses coming up will wonder what their belief system is and how much confidence they have in it.