The Future of the Office: Rory Sutherland

What has lockdown been like for you? 

I found that we all got on very well in my family and I’ve been particularly impressed with my teenage daughters who adapted to the situation and the rules very well. In regards to myself, I have been a huge pioneer and advocate of agile and remote working for about two years so a little bit of me quite enjoyed it because I felt a little bit vindicated. 

I’ve been saying for ages that the fact that business travel is increasing in volume at a time when good quality video conferencing is available for free, must be an example of some kind of irrationality or absurdity. The kind of trips where you spend more time in the air than you do on the ground. It intrigued me to see that it took a pandemic to take everyone to discover the possibilities of this technology. The amount of time and effort we expend in commuting, for example, doesn't seem to make much sense on an environmental or economic basis. 


So would you say that the role of the office is decreasing?

When I first started my career, about 90% of what I was doing required me to be working in the office. Your phone was a desk phone, there was a photocopier the size of a small car in the basement, faxes arrived, and your computer wasn’t portable. Effectively, with the exception of writing with pen and paper, nearly everything you accomplished required an office to do it. Bit by bit, technology improved bringing us laptops, mobile phones and fairly high quality home broadband which all reduced the amount we had to physically be in the office. For many people I would say they only need to be in the office about 50% of the time. 

At Ogilvy, we’ve been experimenting with different ways of working before the pandemic even happened. We’ve been doing Zoom Fridays for a while where we all work remotely and a couple of my team have family commitments so I was keen to shorten and synchronise the part of the week where you had to be in London. And also think about what percentage of people retire because they can’t do the work? More often than not, they retire because they can’t hack the commute anymore. So we’ve already found that it works very very well to answer some of those problems, and in some cases surprisingly well for things like brainstorming or ideation where conventional wisdom would have suggested that it wouldn’t work very well at all. But even real advocates like me do not suggest working remotely every day, however this has worked even better than even fairly optimistic people ever expected.


In what ways have you found brainstorming over Zoom to work better than face-to-face?

Things like group problem solving work perfectly well online. And I’ve heard this idea that creativity works on Zoom not only from us. Perhaps we were at an advantage because we’ve been practising what we call ‘Zoom-storms’ for a while. But it’s worth remembering that a bit of practise will help - the art of speaking to an inanimate object takes a few hours of practise before it stops feeling weird. But I would argue that the meetings are less hierarchical. Where you sit on the screen is randomised so you don’t have the problem of the person left sitting at the end of the table. There is less power to use clothing and other subconscious things to signal dominance. There is less structured conversation which is great - I think having the odd 20 minutes of a meeting with no agenda is what a lot of people have been craving. 

Face-to-face time is very expensive and it’s very scarce so it tends to be portioned up in advance. I come from Wales and when I first got into business in London, I couldn’t believe this. In Wales the first section of the meeting would have been chewing the fat. Welsh people, before the guts of the meeting, would make Welsh noises to each other with generalised chit-chat. I felt the absence of that when I came to London. A meeting should be as sociable as it is structured and I think we have become a bit rigid. For a creative person, the ideas are as likely to emerge accidentally as they are deliberately. Allowing conversation to follow its own path often leads to value that neither individual could have planned in advance.

There’s a vital thing in that we might be making a mistake in always comparing Zoom with a physical meeting. Where Zoom really wins is in replacing emails and other much colder forms of communication. Email imposes on you a kind of logic that isn’t imposed on you in conversation. Mid-email I can’t change tack if something triggers my memory. So the freedom for digression in a spoken conversation is actually essential to creativity in some ways, the fact that you can change tack and that not every sentence you utter has to make perfect sense, is beneficial. 

In terms of an open plan office, it’s actually quite a cold form of communication because it tends to formalise behaviours. Online, however, you have many of the advantages of face-to-face but for some of your team who are introverted it can be even better because it is less tiring - you can turn your screen off if you’re exhausted, you can go on mute and go to the loo, it works surprisingly well. Humans are massively visual so we can do a pretty good job of imagining that we are physically in the meeting. The fact that the majority felt more productive in these conditions is an extraordinary revelation.


We heard that you have a theory on the role of the office, that it should become ‘half library, half party’ - what does that entail?

There are a few things which I think are important. I genuinely have always believed that the monotony and lack of variety offered by the open plan office is a problem. Because it’s an attempt to please the average which ends up being neither - it’s neither solitude nor is it sociability. You can’t find seclusion for concentration and you can’t really socialise because you disturb people. So it doesn’t allow people control over context setting, depending on the different type of work they need to do. You can work harder, be more productive and have a better quality of life when you have that choice. David Ogilvy never wrote anything in the office. If he needed to write, he went home as there are too many distractions in an open plan setting. 

Bear in mind that the reason people will be coming into the office will be for two extremes: either their home is noisy and they want peace or their home is lonely and they want companionship. We should look at reducing the amount of office space we have and split it between places which offer solitude, and places for both planned and unplanned encounters. When you’re at university, some people work in their room, some go to the library, some head to coffee shops, bars or other social areas. It all depends on the type of work you are doing and where best you are productive. A university holds a mix of spaces that serve different functions well. What we’ve got with an office is essentially one space. 

For people who are introverts, the modern office where you’re essentially visible in a semi-social setting all the time is probably cognitively not very optimal. It’s much more likely that extroverts end up setting the pace. It’s much easier to say, “Let’s all go to the pub!” than it is to say, “Let’s all go home and watch television in our underpants...” So I would argue that modern office life is heavily calibrated towards extrovert tastes.


If we are now more open to working from all sorts of remote locations, do you see this opening up more opportunities for the types of people who we can collaborate with and recruit? 

Yes, geographically, cognitively (tackling the extrovert bias), socio-economically… We talk about diversity in recruitment but then we make it essential that anyone hired lives in or near London. If Zoom had existed in 1962, on January 1st to be precise, then Decca would probably have signed The Beatles. The reason Decca decided not to hire The Beatles but chose to hire Brian Poole and The Tremeloes instead, was because The Beatles were from Liverpool and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes were from the East End. They said that the trouble with these Liverpool bands is that everytime they come down for a meeting you’ve got to pay for the high return train fares. So one of the reasons for Decca not to hire The Beatles was geographical. It’s a really fascinating thought. If Zoom had existed back then then the entire musical history could have been different. That was not procurement’s finest hour I think it’s fair to say. 

I think diversifying removes the excessive geographical concentration of well-paid work in London and helps spread wealth a bit. If you can have 80% of a London salary but be based outside the city, you’ve probably got a pretty good life. It also enables people to profit from the disconcentration of consumption made possible by the internet. 

Young people like crowded places - raves, bars, parties, festivals - so London is better for them. But the old people and middle aged people didn’t clear out. Young people are desperate to move here and old people for a variety of reasons are too reluctant to leave. But if you take away the crowded events, it’s not like my childhood where you had to go to the city to buy anything interesting. You’ve got the internet. This has removed a lot of the reasons not to live remotely or slightly further out.

Unless you’re obsessed with raves, then the quality of accommodation you get in London is abysmal in proportion to the money you pay for it. Disgracefully bad in many cases. It’s a huge cost. What pay rise could you give people if companies spent 50% less on real estate, and also what effective pay rise could you give people if they were free to live a little further out of London? If you think about it, everyone who is working out of London is paying for two homes as they are paying for their office indirectly. So I think it’s significant progress - without even mentioning the environmental benefits.

Secondly, we have lost serendipitous meetings during this period because we can’t attend business conferences and events. Without accidental meetings the industry will become less imaginative and less well-informed overtime. There are some replacements to that such as webinars and online conferences. You can invite as many people as you like to an online conference because the marginal cost of another attendee is pretty much zero so you get a much wider audience and you don’t have to lose out on meeting new people because you have to reserve certain seats. I’ve often felt that the people who attend conferences and things like Cannes Lions aren’t the people that really need to be there. It tends to be senior people who have been several times before. The people who really need to go are the up and coming people who have the most to gain.

We need to try and find alternatives to the way in which people meet randomly at face-to-face events. I encourage my team to go on more podcasts, give talks online and make more noise because then, you may not find out about other people, but at least they will find out about you. Fame massively increases the likelihood that you will end up connecting with interesting and valuable people.