Reinventing our workplaces
The relentless rise of automation has kept office life stuck in an endless reboot where instead of using the technology we have we create new systems and waste time getting used to them. In her new book, Julia Hobsbawm says despite all the emphasis on ‘well-being’ at work it has been neither well nor functional.
As the coolest man in the recent annals of television said: “Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’, or a dance that says ‘Look, something new’.” We should all listen to Mad Men’s Don Draper.
The office is a byword for modern work. There are 3.3 billion people working in the world and while the majority still work outside in the fields or in factories, the service sector of knowledge-based work is the fastest growing. The office has come to symbolise what so many of us do for a living, in the way the mill or the assembly line used to.
In the Nowhere Office, a new phase of work in which half the professional and technical workforce have the potential to become fully remote -and half of workers globally declared that they would quit their jobs if not provided with flexibility – the degree of agency to choose your place and hours of work will come to define us far more than the old classifications. Being labelled a ‘white collar’ or a ‘blue collar’ worker could be replaced by being a ‘hybrid have’ or ‘hybrid have-not’ worker instead.
The office has captured our imagination in popular culture and in debates about the future of work. When the pandemic locked us out from our workplace, nostalgia grew for TV shows where the star was in many ways the office itself. Viewing figures rocketed.
In Amazon Prime’s Bosch, the gritty LA detective Harry Bosch is frequently shown with his colleagues handling toxic office politics alongside close-ups of cubicle life. Watching Harry do his paperwork is a crucial part of the show. Netflix’s comedy drama Call My Agent! is also set in an office with lots of people bustling around having showdowns in reception.
From Mad Men to The Office, we seem to enjoy keeping the world of work and its dysfunctions at a safe, entertaining distance. The question of whether people wanted to rush back to the office with the old nine-to-five routine once the pandemic started to subside – something employers and governments were counting on – was clearly more nuanced.
People are now asking searching questions about the nature of work, and its meaning to them. In particular, they ask what is the point of the office? Is it work or to socialise? To brainstorm or learn? Or is it really a kind of measuring stick from times gone by, dedicated to presenteeism?
In autumn 2021, I posted a comic Belgian video on Twitter featuring a young girl taking her father ‘back to the office’ in a charming role reversal showing the kind of anxiety and reluctance familiar to any parent cajoling a child back to school. It went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of retweets and was seen nearly three million times. ‘I’ve been back in my office for two weeks and this is more accurate than I care to admit’, wrote @kelbayar, a programme co-ordinator for the United Nations.
“It isn’t as if the philosophical questions about work were not being asked before Covid-19, but they were in the background. The total shutdown of the world’s offices focused minds, not least on how much separation there actually is between who we are as human beings and who we are as worker beings.”
What has happened to so dramatically shift the collective psyche of the world’s office workers? My new book attempts to answer that question.
It isn’t as if the philosophical questions about work were not being asked before Covid-19, but they were in the background. The total shutdown of the world’s offices focused minds, not least on how much separation there actually is between who we are as human beings and who we are as worker beings.
We’ve known for years that work was not working properly. It has excluded some people from fair or equal pay, and gender, race or sexual identity equality. And it has locked others into the wrong systems and structures, ensuring failure.
The relentless rise of automation and new technologies has kept office life stuck in an endless reboot where instead of using the technology we have, we create new systems and waste time getting used to them. For all the new emphasis on ‘well-being’ at work it has been neither well nor functional. Stagnant productivity and endemic stress are testament to this.
But more than this the professional and managerial class is now rebelling against the narrative that upward mobility and ever-increasing job responsibility and workload, matched by increasing pay, perks and job titles, are just rewards. Perhaps without the pandemic the busy merry-go-round of the ‘always on’ life would have continued unabated.
There would have been grumbles and some changes but not a wholesale realignment of priorities. But so much changed for so many during the lockdowns. In the Nowhere Office professional work is now challenged by the very people it provides income for, whose loyalty managers and employers used to be able to depend on. They had the upper hand for so long it appears they did not anticipate it would ever change.
This book is not advocating or envisaging a working world denuded of offices but instead reimagines how it can be done better, regardless of location, and possibly in spite of it. The pandemic brought workplaces centre-stage in the debate about the future of work, but the metaphorical place work plays in our lives and the shifts around it should concern us too.
No one believes we will have to stop work any time soon or that everyone can and should work from home continuously. The Nowhere Office is a reality check about the moment we are in and an optimistic take on the possibilities afforded by the flux of this moment. We are, in terms of the old fundamentals of fixed working patterns, literally nowhere.
The hybrid patterns being introduced today are far from fixed or settled. What matters is where things end up – and that they do so in a way which acknowledges changes that have been building up for decades waiting, perhaps, for this extraordinary time.
This is an edited extract from The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future by Julia Hobsbawm (Basic books, £18.99). Julia also co-presents the podcast The Nowhere Office.
juliahobsbawm.com For Julia’s speaking engagements, contact: email@example.com