I'll tell you something: Everything we miss about ‘normal’ office life really matters

There's a reason employees are nostalgic for watercooler chats and gossiping with their colleagues, says Rob Briner

The much-anticipated future of work, or at least one important part of it, seems tantalisingly close. The urge to toss traditional workspaces into the recycling bin of history has never been stronger. Goodbye office and so long nine-to-five. Hello to working wherever and whenever we want.

It’s sometimes a bit tricky to work out what all the fuss is really about. Many have discovered the benefits of virtual and hybrid working. Yet there are also many downsides.

Most discussed are the possible negative impacts on innovation, creativity and knowledge sharing. Although the role of water-cooler moments in organisational success is probably overrated, there is certainly something in the idea that being physically present with others facilitates certain types of experiences that don’t happen virtually.

When the ‘working from home forever’ fantasy hit fever pitch, I asked around to find out what people missed about going into the office. It should come as little surprise that almost all the things people miss share one quality: spontaneity. We feel deprived of these more in-the-moment experiences – the type that cannot be planned or scheduled.

I don’t know about you, but typically I don’t find there’s much humour in a Zoom meeting. And as you might already have guessed, top of the most-missed list is something we don’t take seriously enough: fun, including flirting, which was mentioned several times.

Having a laugh and messing about seem very difficult to do virtually. In part, this is because we  lose a lot of information when we interact over a screen or phone – it’s harder to read and react to people. In part, it’s because virtual interactions are more stilted as they require more turn-taking and so there are fewer chances to jump in with a quick quip. It’s also because there’s often a stronger feeling that we should not waste time mucking about and stay focused.

Also missed are informal interactions such as moaning and gossiping. These too are fairly spontaneous, but while it’s possible to schedule a virtual moaning or gossiping session, it just wouldn’t be the same. 

Why do we miss them? Put simply, they are brilliant ways of answering important questions we all ask ourselves from time to time: ‘Do my colleagues hate this as much as I do?’, ‘Is this new thing terrible or reasonable?’ ‘What’s whatshisname really up to?’ Without answers to these questions, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the workplace and our colleagues.

Here’s another question: how do you have a virtual corridor conversation? The answer is you don’t. Whereas gossip and moaning have a purpose, number three on the list, the corridor conversation, just happens. This relates to another missed aspect: management by walking about. Moving physically around a workplace lets stuff happen that doesn’t really happen otherwise.

Lastly, believe it or not, some people said they miss commuting. But for some it makes sense – time to think and plan on the way in, and time to decompress and relax on the way home.

There’s been far too much emphasis on productivity as a large proportion of the workforce switched to virtual working. But before we decide to ditch the office, it’s worth reflecting much more on what we miss about being there and why it matters. After all, work is not just about working.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London