Marc Andreessen has a great take on offices: “There was no office of the Roman Empire. There was no office building. They didn’t go to work. They ran the world.”
Offices and schools are byproducts of industrialization. They made sense in the factory-era. They don’t make as much sense, in their current form, especially given the current technologies available.
It doesn’t mean we have to burn them all down. It does mean we have to rethink their purpose.
Andreessen suggest a barbell approach based on our abilities to reach anyone any time anywhere via phones/computers OR physical (long-distance) travel.
If we can text, email, and video chat our basic work, but also jump on a plane and see whoever we need to, what else do we need?
Something to think about. Here’s Andreessen’s whole quote if you’re interested. If you like this, I highly recommend his entire March 2022 EconTalk appearance (emphasis added):
And, you think, like: okay, what’s the office? Why do offices exist?
So, one of the fun things–I’ve been reading a lot of history for the last few years, trying to figure out what’s happening in our world–but, reading a lot of history. And, one of the things you learn is–like, the Roman Empire, there were no offices. There was no office of the Roman Empire. There was no office building. They didn’t go to work. They ran the world. They did it from their homes, and they did it by walking around the street, and they did it by traveling, and they did it in the Senate; but there was no office and so forth and so on. And, by the way, same thing with the creation of the United States. The Founding Fathers didn’t work out of an office. Most of the great things in history didn’t happen in an office.
And so, where did the office come from? The office came basically from the factory. And, therefore this whole thing of–like, well, we have–how is office life organized? It’s, like: we have half hour, hour long meetings on a calendar, and they start at 8:00 or 8:30 or 9:00. Just like a factory. Just like a school. Right? So, school, same thing. This whole idea–Alexander the Great was not taught in a school. He was taught by Aristotle. A guy, at home.
So, this whole idea that you have these offices, schools, factories, whatever, these are modern constructs.
And then, yeah, the experience–and by the way, the college campus, same thing. The college campus is older than that. Whatever, 500 years old or whatever. But, it’s the same thing. I don’t know if you experienced this. You probably have. When you were on the Stanford campus there were probably a lot of people who, in theory, you were going to go talk to on the Stanford campus at some point. Right? And, maybe you’d run into them at the faculty club and say hi, and how about–it’s the old water cooler conversation thing. It’s like, well, how about–talk about the watercolor. It’s like, ‘How about that TV show we both watched? How about that sports game we both watched?’ Like, a lot of those are not real conversations.
And so, I guess what I was going to say, it was sort of an optimized approach of this co-location, this sort of fake co-location thing in the form of an office or a campus was sort of imposed by the technology of the era.
But, now we have two other kinds of technologies that I think are much better. So, one is we have the technology we’re using today. We have–on one side of the barbell–which is sort of–call it constant intermittent digital contact. Right? So, you can talk to me anytime you want, because you can text me, you can message me, you can tweet at me. I’m always there. We can always interact. We can always jump on Zoom. It’s very easy.
On the other side, we have long distance travel. Right? We have the ability to actually go see somebody in person. This is what we’re finding in the workplace, is the fact that I don’t have to be in the office every day for eight hours means that I can actually travel a lot more. And, I can actually work from the road. I can actually do all my other work from the road because I’m now completely portable for all the other work that I do.
And so, I think the answer to your question, which I think is very good, basically is we should basically gap out to both sides of the barbell. We should have a lot more intermittent digital communication and be in touch with a lot more people all the time than we ever could be in an office or on a campus. And then, we should also be in the real world a lot more. We should be on the road a lot more. We should be traveling around and doing all kinds of things and going on adventures and being at lots of places and visiting friends and family more often.
And, I think those are actually very nicely complementary. And, I think the combination of those two approaches, at the ends of the barbell, I think it’s a better way to live. And, I suspect it’s where things are going.