When Will Modern Office Culture Become Obsolete?
Most office workers I speak with think modern office culture is terrible. The good news for them is that office culture might truly be dying. Within our lifetimes, the core identifying markers of traditional “office culture” will become obsolete, at least for the majority of businesses. But what are these fundamental tenets, what’s killing them, and how soon are they going to go away?
What’s Killing Office Culture?
There are a number of factors whittling away the features of office life to which we’ve grown so accustomed:
- Telecommuting. The trend of working from home has skyrocketed in recent years, with now more than one-fifth of all American workers telecommuting. This trend is killing office culture; with fewer employees to populate offices, offices are becoming less important, and the traditions associated with those physical spaces are starting to systematically disappear.
- Technology and Communication. In a similar vein, technologies that enable communication and mobile work are developing at an increasing pace. Many office fundamentals, as we shall see, evolved as a way to maximize communication. When communication is not only feasible, but convenient and efficient regardless of your physical position or behavior, these constructs no longer have any use.
- The Gig Economy. Businesses are starting to shed their full-time opportunities in favor of gigs, distributed to freelancers and independent contractors. It’s creating an economic and professional landscape where the demands of a full-time worker are not only changing, but disappearing entirely
- Millennial Attitudes. Anyone from an older generation may complain about millennial entitlement and refusal to adhere to traditional norms. You can argue whether this is a good or a bad thing, or whether it’s an accurate reflection of the generation, but as a general rule, millennials resist corporate traditions. They’re shaping a freer, looser style of work—whether you like it or not.
- Insights on Productivity and Psychology. New insights on productivity and psychology, such as the fact that meetings kill productivity (and possibly morale), and working from home can be a boon to productivity, are similarly shaping radical office culture changes.
Tenets of Office Culture (and Timelines)
Not everybody dislikes all aspects of modern office culture. Some of them are designed to improve productivity, some of them are vestiges of older traditions of etiquette, and some of them evolved naturally or by happenstance.
In any case, these are the fundamentals of office culture that we’ll be waving goodbye to, some sooner and some later:
- The 9-to-5 Workday. The 9-to-5 workday is already starting to die. People working from home and non-time-specific modes of communication like email remove the necessity of everyone being in the same place at the same time. Though this may persist in some informal way for many years, it should die as a rigid construct in the next few.
- The Hierarchy. The corporate hierarchy has evolved somewhat in recent years, especially in certain niches like startups. The pecking order of leaders, supervisors, managers, and bosses keep employees in line, even if workers sometimes question leadership decisions. It’s unlikely that this will disappear (after all, people love their job titles), but I anticipate more democratic work discussions in the next few years, when more millennials step into leadership positions.
- The Dress Code. The suit-and-ties of past offices have been dying a slow death, as modern trends have allowed for more lax dress standards. In the next decade, mandatory dress codes will fall out of style, but good hygiene and professionalism will always be important.
- The Water Cooler. A less formal feature of office culture, water cooler discussions are on their way out. With texting, IMs, and social media, who needs a water cooler to have a friendly conversation?
- Cubicles. Cubicles have risen and fallen in popularity, as studies have provided mixed results about their effects on productivity. It’s hard to say exactly how these will develop in the future, but it’s likely that they’ll disappear along similar lines as full physical offices.
- Meetings. Meetings can’t ever die, so long as collaboration remains important, but they will transform, and radically, in the next few years. We have too many cool new technologies and too much emphasis on personal productivity to allow the hours-long board-room discussions of yesteryear to keep interfering with our productivity.
A Question of Industry
Some industries will naturally lend themselves to faster rates of adoption than others. For example, tech startups are already ditching most of these old-school tenets of office culture. Why? Because they can set their own rules, they thrive on an image of being cutting-edge, and they’re usually started by younger demographics. Older businesses, like major consulting firms that have been around for decades, are unlikely to change nearly as quickly (if ever).
Can Office Culture Ever Die Universally?
Even when these modern office culture staples begin to die out, they won’t die out in the same way for every business. Some industries or older organizations may hold onto them forever, preserving them in traditional reverence. Certainly, there will be new entrepreneurs who appreciate or even idolize these traditional aspects, and may work to prevent them from dying entirely. As such, it seems impossible that new traditions will completely replace the old, just as motor vehicles never completely replaced horseback riding—then again, when was the last time you saw a horse on the road?