The Beatles Prove It: Get Back to the Office

John Lennon was late—as usual. While waiting for his erstwhile bandmate, Paul McCartney started strumming aimlessly on his Hofner bass as if it were a guitar. Before long, a rhythm and melody begin to emerge. A yawning George Harrison starts strumming along and Ringo Starr moved from singing along to the back of his drumkit. A few moments later, John showed up, grabbed his guitar and seamlessly joined as Paul improvised some lyrics. “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged…”

Watching The Beatles come together to compose and rehearse new songs (as seen in the “Get Back” documentary) reminded me how much pent-up creative power exists in a group of motivated people getting back together in the office, and of all that is lost when co-workers work remotely.

Over the last couple of COVID years, the growing remote work trend morphed from a forced emergency reaction to a desired “new normal.” Two-thirds of 360 global business executives responding to a recent survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit believe that work-from-home arrangements will likely continue in some form. Technology advances, for better or for worse, have been the main drivers making this possible.

Before I proceed further, I must confess that I’ve been working alone from home for nearly 35 years and wouldn’t take an office job for any amount of money (but feel free to tempt me). Even though writing is a solitary profession, I cut my professional teeth in a pre-internet open newsroom, attempting to concentrate amidst the constant cacophonous clattering of keyboard keys and my fellow reporters yelling questions across a room. As someone who admittedly endures work isolation’s ill-effects, such as creeping misanthropy and FOMO, I am more acutely aware of—and often miss—the benefits, both professionally and personally, of in-person collaborative camaraderie.

What a noisy newsroom, The Beatles, and every office group that daily assembles in-person have in common is serendipitous sociability—the way people spark ideas, creativity and collaboration merely by showing up and engaging in natural interactions. The usual “water cooler” fare plus after-work complaints over drinks about boring and unproductive meetings, or unreasonable bosses foment a collective work culture that accrues immeasurable work/social benefits that more than surpass the sum of their parts.

But justification for this work-from-home new normal is predicated on three decidedly non-human benefits: technology, economics and productivity.

  • Technology: In many ways, the embrace of remote work is the ultimate expression of tech’s most powerful black hole—doing something because we can, not because we should. There is no doubt working from home wouldn’t be possible without the advanced digital tools now available. Many governments are scrambling to allocate greater resources for communities underserved by broadband, which is essential for remote learning and working. While closing the digital gap is a good thing, the unintended consequence could be the increased geographic spread of our remote workforce.But technology only superficially enables remote work. Considering how humans communicate, exclusive digital intercourse conducted via screens and keyboards creates new and unnecessary problems. Suggestions, criticisms or comments rendered via email or text are bereft of the coloring context of vocal intonation, facial expression and body language. This can foster a further misinterpretation when filtered through the prism of the reader’s perception of the message rather than the author’s intent.
  • Economics: Work from home can present both companies and workers undeniable financial benefits. Employers save on office expenses, and employees save commuting time and costs, a seeming win-win. For a clear picture, however, loss of in-person serendipitous sociability and the building of co-worker trust must be added to the minus side of the balance sheet.
  • Productivity: Results have been mixed. According to the aforementioned Economist survey, respondents reported a 39% increase in COVID-era productivity, 32.6% a productivity drop, and 28.5% saw no change. But the report also found that “many business leaders believe a remote set-up cannot completely make up for the value of in-person working, particularly when it comes to successfully managing teams and fostering company culture. While they agree remote set-ups have helped ‘keep the lights on’, it is not necessarily the future they want.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, The Beatles could have composed and recorded remotely—and often did for the White Album. But as we see even in their final days, John, Paul, George and Ringo realized that only getting back together in person would produce truly historic results.