This extract from The Nowhere Office – Demos paper on The Future of Work, by Julia Hobsbawm (March 2021), is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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The only thing we can say with certainty about office life is that it has changed more for good in the last year than it has in the last hundred. The pandemic has pitched the world of work from one already undergoing a seismic change into a new revolutionary convulsion, in which as many as one third of people say they never want to go back to work full-time in an office: tumbleweed is blowing around the ankles of city skyscrapers.
When around fifteen million people in the UK [alone] stopped their commute, stopped buying their skinny latte with extra foam on top, stopped gossiping in corridors and instead pivoted to a work from home model (and this did not make productivity fall off a cliff, as had long been feared), it became obvious that this is one hell of a genie to try and put back in the bottle.
This reflects the notion of a lingering fear, but also the sheer convenience of a non-commute life: while only half of workers say they won’t miss the commute and Microsoft even designed a virtual commute for those who did, 67% of professionals say they plan to work differently after the pandemic.
It has also become clear that Covid-19 triggered an eruption of the pressures which had been building up deep within working life for the last fifty years - namely flexible working, remote working, automation, digitalisation, the expectations of the digitally-native Gen Zs, the whole question of productivity and the new kid on the corporate block: Purpose.
The office, which has been around in a form we recognise for a couple of hundred years, symbolises everything society aspires to: mobility, status, wealth, progress, consumption. But moral philosophy now stalks its boardroom corridors: three years before the pandemic in 2017, the British Academy began its Future of the Corporation project and asked: “Is the corporation adequately equipped and structured to deal with the challenges of our future? How can it make our society better, and more prosperous for everyone?”.
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Our values are shifting rapidly, embracing not just different physical working practices but emotional ones, or what the thoughtful social trends charity the RSA calls ‘The Empathy Economy.’ This systemic shift, combined with the propulsive force of Covid-19, has blown our working lives apart like a tornado. ‘The office’ has become somewhere so alien to us, so poorly-defined, that it is now in the middle of nowhere.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have to find our way back home, knowing we will be utterly changed by the process. The Nowhere Office came out of a conversation with the leading British Think Tank Demos, whose director asked me to lead a new initiative, The Workshift Commission. We are attempting to gaze into an imminent crystal ball, to assess the workplace revolution we find ourselves in, and to ask both what it means and where it is actually going to end up.
The Journey and the Destination
I welcome with caution and caveat what I call the Nowhere Office. This new hybrid space where ‘the office’ is, will be multi-site, never 9-5 and flexible in its working patterns. Our working identities, rather like the shifts happening within wider culture around gender and sex, are going to become infinitely more varied and more personalised. This is not perhaps as glamorous as how we identify who and how we love, but it will be no less significant.
Work, with a capital ’W’, is going to follow cultural suit and become tailored to the people who do the work, creating a knock-on effect to the entire supply-chain of transport, location, technology and team, that all office-based endeavour involves.
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There will no longer be a single one-size-fits-all ‘normal’ place of work, such as the skyscrapers of the 1930s onwards, which epitomises the silo, the single focus on work, on profit, on growth, and on separation of self from anything outside of ‘The Corporation’.
We may find that while we travel less around the world, we undertake a different kind of journey. A journey between different modes of work, in different rhythms to the ones we jammed into office life as we knew it before. We should not be filled with regret. I’m with Edith Piaf: “Je ne regrette rien” – and I write as someone who has spent over thirty years filing in and out of offices.
Because this moment, this Gladwell-esque tipping point has arrived. It should be welcomed, and it should be clarified and defined, its new contours explored so that policies can better fit with our lives.
More on the Forum Network: "Human Work, the Global Talent Gap, and the future of Democracy", by Jamie Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
If anything the term ‘Nowhere’ should be replaced by ‘Liminal’. A liminal space that is the threshold between ‘what was and what is next’.
By addressing the trio of place, time and Social Health – where we work, when, and what our social selves require, I hope to edge towards understanding what kind of people will thrive in the new environment and who will be at risk? What kind of jobs will be better at WFH [Working from Home] and what rhythm will we adapt to in a hybrid time-place model?
The market will slowly find answers to these questions. The quality of our work in this new environment will, in large part, determine how much of a shift this moment becomes. As the economist Hamish McRae put it to me: “I have yet to get a response from a service provider saying that because of WFH they are able to deal more swiftly than usual with my request, and several times have got the opposite.”
But if we let the market be the only decider, we may miss an opportunity to make work better for those who do it. Work should not be a painful experience, to be compensated for with various wellbeing initiatives but a source of connection, identity, purpose and humanity. It shouldn’t matter whether the office is somewhere, anywhere, or nowhere; what matters is whether it is a place worth being.
Find out more about The Nowhere Office by Julia Hobsbawm (Demos, March 2021)
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