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Named one of the Financial Times' BEST BUSINESS BOOKS OF 2022
What has changed in the workplace? Everything.
The traditional office was probably doomed anyway. Then a global shutdown changed everything we thought we knew about work, including where and when it needed to take place. Automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have accelerated, and perhaps as much as one third of the world’s permanent workforce will soon become remote. In The Nowhere Office, Julia Hobsbawm offers a strategic and practical guide to navigating this pivotal moment in the history of work and provides lessons for how both employees and employers can adapt.
Hobsbawm draws on her extensive networks in business, academia, and entrepreneurship across generations to offer new ideas about how to handle hybrid working, as well as provides deep insight into how the way we work is being transformed by larger issues such as community, hierarchy, bias, identity, and security. The Nowhere Office describes a unique moment in the history of work which, if understood and handled correctly, can provide a springboard for the biggest transformational change in the workplace for a century: something better, more meaningful, and more workable for everyone.
Office centricity is over.
Tobi Lütke, CEO Shopify, on Twitter1
Imagine you are holding a snow globe in your hand and the object inside is not a place you have been to on holiday or a festive bauble but a representation of where you work. What does it show? Your home? A laptop? A driverless car? For the professional class (which in advanced economies makes up over 40 per cent of the workforce) there is no single obvious image to encapsulate working life any more.2 Thanks to the internet and automation it could be a smartphone or it could be a makeshift desk under a tree.
It is unlikely to be – at least full time – an actual office. At the centre of work’s new snow globe is not a place but a person, whose working life is being shaken up more than at any point in the last hundred years. The Nowhere Office reflects the impact of shifting tectonic plates which were grinding away before Covid-19 happened: technology and its relationship to humans, flexible working – what we now call ‘hybrid working’ – but also bigger philosophical arguments about the meaning of work itself. As the legendary American social historian Studs Terkel put it in his epic study Working: ‘Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.’3
The world of work was already quite sick before the coronavirus took hold. According to the American Institute of Stress 83 per cent of American workers suffer from work-related illnesses. In South Korea the working week was reduced in 2018 because of ‘Gwarosa’ or ‘death from overwork’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy $1 trillion every year.4
The pandemic lifted the lid on a desire to work differently, or less, or with more work–life balance. We can see the impact of this in every metric around work: from ‘The Great Resignation’ in which millions of American workers resigned en masse and the one in four workers who now imagine they might quit or switch jobs,5 to the reduction in corporate property rents by as much as 10 per cent with huge changes in the use of office space, co-working space and fixed-lease space.6 The city has a new competitor: the suburb. This comes as no surprise with the McKinsey Global Institute estimating that up to a quarter of workers in advanced economies will work permanently on a hybrid basis, i.e. partly from home, several days a week.7 Truly we are nowhere near where we used to be in the middle of Nowhere.
Wherever we end up, working life has been due for a shake-up for a long time. This book attempts to see through the snow blizzard of changes engulfing the world of professional work and to imagine positive changes that could be made to improve it as the post-pandemic world begins to settle.8
The Nowhere Office is office life but without the formal fixtures and fittings we took for granted before the pandemic. It sees a role for the office, but a very changed one. Instead of a single fixed place or schedule, it envisages a mobile, hybrid world which uses HQ offices wisely for certain functions and not for others. It is a new era in professional work which blows away the cobwebs of a stale working model of management and presenteeism and replaces it with a fairer and more functional system that works not only from the top down but also across an organisation.
Snow globes have been around for roughly as long as modern office life (about a hundred years) and while there have been some changes, from glass to plastic, from water to glycerine, from metal shavings to soap flakes, the fundamentals – object, snow, transparent case – remain. Their enduring popularity is simple. They connect us emotionally to two things: the fixed permanence of something we want to keep and the fluttering flash of change and disruption. Humans love both certainty and distraction. The movement of the beautiful flakes swirling around transfixes us but we also like to know where we stand. In the end the snow globe always settles back, but this time the base itself has shifted. This moment is therefore both exciting and uncomfortable. The Nowhere Office represents the moment when those professionals working in business and organisations – the teacher, the technician, the PA, the CEO, the executive in HR, the consultant, the IT expert, the employee, the employer, the freelancer – realise that something fundamental has shifted and that their own snow globe can be reset. That work has been stuck and that change is needed.
The Nowhere Office is a new beginning in the story of the office – if we choose to make it so.
Shift 1: Placeless, Timeless
Acres of gray steel desk, gray steel filing cabinets, and steel-gray faces under indirect light. One wall is lined with glass-enclosed cubicles for the supervisory personnel. It is all very neat, antiseptic, impersonal. The only human touch is supplied by a bank of IBM machines, clacking away cheerfully in the background.
Opening scene of The Apartment, Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, 1960
An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
After the financial crash of 2008, the legendary architect Frank Duffy took a walk around New York and made a prescient observation of how the office, the main symbol of modern working life, might be about to end: ‘The building isn’t a useful unit of analysis anymore, because organisations are always bigger or smaller and constantly changing. At least half operate in a virtual world, in a placeless world.’1 Today, in the aftermath of the twenty-first century’s first pandemic, we work from the middle of somewhere and nowhere: we work hybrid, we WFH (work from home) or we WFA (work from anywhere).
This chapter looks at the disruption of old norms around two previously immutable aspects of work: fixed time and place. It is only in the last four hundred years at most that the building as the rigidly fixed place for work we now call the office has become a defining feature of professional, administrative work. It does not have to remain so. Hybrid working is in operation to some degree in all but a handful of professional workplaces (with the reminder that while there are many jobs which must be done from a fixed location, such as front-line medical workers or cleaners, they are not the focus of this book). I will look at what the office needs to be, how the home or the mobile working pattern will operate in practice, and frame it all against time, and what Virginia Woolf called ‘the timepiece of the mind’.
Office workers are no longer constrained by the physical diktats of place and time. The capability to work from anywhere has existed for a while but the pandemic put rocket boosters on cultural change. Discussions about RTO (returning to the office) are increasingly fraught and in flux. There is no uniform model or agreement. The case for going into an office regularly is having to be made to the workforce and many are rejecting it – risking a huge rise in underused corporate space.2
In addition, up to half of America’s jobs are projected to be freelance by 2030 and two-thirds of employers now regard some form of remote work or hybrid work as ‘the new norm’.3 Many companies are declaring themselves ‘fully remote’, meaning they have a competitive edge over those requiring presenteeism. Offices will need to appeal to people differently now they can use a computer anywhere, and nearly everyone has experienced working from home during the lockdowns. Suddenly the smartphone, which increased from 122 million circulating globally in 2007 to 1,536 million in 2021, has become ‘the desk’, affecting hundreds of millions of people in terms of their routine, commute, workflow and interactions with colleagues.4 It also affects hundreds of millions more with the knock-on economic effects on commercial property, infrastructure, hospitality and retail in cities and suburbs.
In this new world time matters as much as place. Cloud-based technology and automation have already kicked open the windows and knocked down the walls of the traditional office, but the digital world swallows up time just as much as the old world did. Microsoft’s Trends Survey shows that as much as 42 per cent additional digital exchanges took place when people were working from home during the pandemic.5
What is different is that we can now choose how to manage the time we spend working in a way that suits us rather than the traditional nine to five, Monday to Friday routine. This explains why discussions around the four-day week have reached an intensity never seen before. We are not yet anywhere near to the famous fifteen-hour working week John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s, but his prediction seems newly relevant. We do still want to work (and we need to financially) but in new ways.6
Emerging from the long tail of Covid something vital and exciting becomes clear: the old normal doesn’t exist any more. It is important to recognise that we have entered a liminal in-between time in the history of work.
There have always been changes in work. We can track today’s move towards full-blown flexibility back to the six-hour day introduced by industrialist Kellogg in the 1930s. In shortening the working week to enlarge the base of working people, Kellogg’s reforms unintentionally triggered the nascent movement for modern work–life balance. The widespread entry of women into office life from the 1960s also prepared the foundations for the modern campaign for greater flexibility which emerged in the 1980s. The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ of the internet, AI and automation has brought us to the cusp of yet more change, but the pandemic turned incremental change into a surge. Dave Eisenberg of the proptech company Zigg Capital in New York said:
Covid forced the world into an experiment on remote work as a viable replacement for in-office work for a lot of groups that would never have thought to test the hypothesis. And what they discovered is that while it might not be optimal, it was certainly plausible that if you’re in an intellectual pursuit you can actually do your job remotely. For anyone not in a physical service delivery function, and that’s a huge chunk of the economy, the remainder of people are able to work remotely in some capacity.
The Fourth Work Shift
As outlined in the introduction, the Nowhere Office can be understood as the fourth phase of work since the end of the Second World War. The first phase is the Optimism Years, 1945–77, the heyday of fixed office life. Then came the Mezzanine Years, 1978–2006, during which issues around flexibility and work–life balance began to build but were never properly addressed. This was also a time that encompassed the furious growth of globalisation in the 1980s and 1990s and ushered in the ‘always on’ era of working life. During the third phase, the Co-Working Years, 2006–19, mobility arrived for a new demographic armed with ambition and apparently limitless options, Generation Mobile. This new workforce was dubbed #GenMobile. By 2016 data showed that 38 per cent of workers globally prized flexible working,7 but the prevailing management models remained surprisingly inflexible. Presenteeism was paramount and the reward for working hard was promotion so you could work harder, for more pay and perks, and climb the corporate ladder. What was not prized was the idea of working smarter or even working less. During this period there was little original thinking to imagine office life as anything other than glamorous co-working spaces or smart HQs, bookended by global travel for those in the upper echelons of office life and by trips to the coffee stalls and bars in the vicinity of the city-based office for the rest.
In the fourth phase, the Nowhere Office, beginning in 2020, everything is moving off its old moorings and significant change seems possible. Covid-19 grounded everyone, from the executive constantly shuttling between airports to the deskbound PA. While working full time from home during pandemic lockdowns was temporary, it has left a sticky residue. It no longer seems right or sensible to work full time from the office. People recognise that their work, and therefore their time, is a valuable commodity and they want to have a greater say in when and where they sell it.
Hardliners and Softliners
It is clear, however, that our attitudes to how we work are complex and inconsistent.8 Take for instance the Ipsos data that Generation Z and older millennials wish both to work from home three days a week (62 per cent of Generation Z and 56 per cent of millennials) while at the same time wanting (58 per cent of Generation Z and 48 per cent of millennials) to work face to face with colleagues, i.e. from an office.9 Forty-two per cent of people with children felt that working from home placed their mental well-being under additional stress, yet 62 per cent say that WFH (working from home) afforded them a better work–life balance.10
A huge Vodafone survey showed that 75 per cent of global companies had already introduced some form of hybrid or flexible working post-pandemic before a full return to work.11 Yet considerable ambivalence remains among some leaders. In one camp you get the hardliners who believe working from the office is best. Many feel that those who work from home are to some extent work-shy. At the very least they wish to penalise people who prefer to work hybrid. Take the bombastic internal memo sent by James Gorman, chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley to his staff: ‘If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York. None of this “I’m in Colorado… and getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City”’,12 echoing an equally robust statement from David Solomon of Goldman Sachs that working from home was ‘an aberration’.13 Similarly the veteran Wall Street observer William Cohan simply said this: ‘Here’s my advice to you, fellow Wall Street drones: Get back to the office.’14 In another camp are the more emollient hybrid softliners such as Kevin Ellis, London-based chairman of consultancy firm PwC with 285,000 employees in 155 countries around the world, who said that ‘we want to enshrine new working patterns so that they outlast the pandemic’.15 Regardless of which camp employers are in, it is obviously true that an awful lot of social capital resides in the office. I talked to Kevin Ellis, who said: ‘My worry is that we’re going to create a glass ceiling for people whose careers will be stunted because they’re working from home and not realising what they’re missing out on.’
Nevertheless, all of these comments reflect a wistfulness on the part of big business which can no longer magically attract the same kind of worker prepared to work in the same way they did before the pandemic.16 Hybrid working reflects the fact that mobility and freedom are the new prizes for the professional working class, who do not so much want to ‘clock on’ and ‘clock off’ as move seamlessly between work and private life. The shift to a placeless and timeless dimension for work means the fixed HQ will have to work a lot harder to attract and retain ‘talent’. As Tim Chapman, founder and CEO of Leesman who measure employee workplace experience, wrote towards the end of 2021, ‘Covid-19 has upended business’s historic operational and financial justifications for workplace.’17
Castles in the Air
We have shifted very far from the moment in 2017, ahead of the opening of the 3.2-acre site of its new European headquarters on the old Roman ruins at Watling Street in the heart of the City of London, when Michael Bloomberg declared:
This building is designed for our employees. So that they can be productive and happy in their environment and be proud of where they work. And then for visitors – for customers, for prospective employees, friends and relatives. You want people to walk out and say ‘I want to work there’ or ‘I want to deal with this company.’
The architects Foster + Partners say that they designed it so that ‘Everyone passes through this animated space, increasing the likelihood of chance meetings and informal discussions.’
The message was that ‘placeless’ might be a concept and technologically possible – but place matters. An ostentatiously powerful place was good for business and attracting people to work for you. But the pandemic changed perceptions. Lingering Covid-related health and safety fears around building ventilation may make chance meetings less attractive than they were before. Every big building has elevators which have echoes of the commuter crush and cause uncertainty over the dangers of physical proximity. Being in an office may even trigger feelings we don’t want – of being unsure and unsafe. Le Corbusier’s quest for ‘inner cleanness’ came directly out of the new public health aesthetics following the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918–20. Would Foster + Partners be given the same commission by Bloomberg in 2023 or 2033? Just as the Spanish Flu influenced architectural design for clean, safe minimalism, the pandemic has sparked a different aesthetic entirely. Now properties are being repurposed to reduce shared dining tables and kitchens, gyms and showers, and clever spaces to meet semi-socially and semi-collaboratively are being rethought to enable social distancing. Will Bloomberg build another gigantic palace like Watling Street? Probably not.
Bloomberg’s story is instructive because for so long it defined city-based corporate offices as palaces of opulence and comfort which encouraged presenteeism. It pioneered the all-you-can-eat buffets, the glittering digital displays and hi-tech hi-touch beanbag era of the Co-Working Years. Office life was glamorous, it had status, it was opulent, and it was fun. Until it wasn’t.
Now the fun is tempered not only with a sense that office life is restrictive and confining, but that it brings with it complication and risk. Thus the appeal of remote-based work grows. Companies like Firstbase, which promotes remote-based teams, bring a breathless enthusiasm to the idea that no one should have a place to work from: ‘Being handcuffed to an office and expected to live in a high cost of living city with a low quality of life is a remnant of the industrial revolution,’ declares its website.
The old kind of office was a place where you were metaphorically handcuffed, primarily by technology, even when this was simply a typewriter or a filing cabinet. Property giant Cushman & Wakefield entered into a significant strategic partnership with WeWork in the summer of 2021 as if to underscore that the old divisions between long-term office use and more flexible use are now intertwined.18
Smart leaders today are thinking the unthinkable and asking whether they need an office in the same way again, not because they are following the hybrid herd, but because they are keeping their eyes and ears open to what is going on in their own businesses. Joanna Swash, CEO of outsourcing reception, PA and communications provider Moneypenny (and a member of the Forbes Business Council), was frank that her perceptions had been challenged by the pandemic when everyone had to go fully remote overnight:
Before Covid-19 I thought we’ve got amazing offices, and that they are this space that everybody loves. What I learned was that our culture was so strong that it wasn’t just based on the office or on the physical environment, but it was based on that whole community feel, and how people trust each other. It should have been obvious to me, but that was a really big lesson at the start of the pandemic.
A similar point was made by Chris Thurling, chair of Armadillo, a digital design firm which went fully remote during the pandemic, and who expanded his business during this period:
I want to remain completely open-minded about whether we ever need to have a traditional office again. If you look at the performance of our business since March 2020, we are performing really well and our clients are not saying there’s been a drop-off in quality. Our profitability as a business has gone up and we’re growing. Why would we change too much?
The desire to attract workers back to offices explains the growth in what has been called ‘the smart-building trend’, where companies are vying to attract and retain office-based workers with running tracks on the roof or all-year outdoor terraces in addition to back-to-work bonuses and of course those all-you-can-eat buffets and en-suite gyms.19 It is certainly one way to keep architects, designers and landlords productive but it masks the real purpose behind it: presenteeism.
Of course not every job can be remote as industries and sectors vary hugely. You cannot compare a workplace which is reliant only on telephone and computer to one that requires more than that. In some areas of working life dealing with complex real-time issues needs to be done face to face. But for most of corporate life the pandemic has proved that it is very possible to keep teams and projects working using teleconferencing and the internet. The Nowhere Office can and should enable the way we prioritise location and shift from presenteeism as a rule to presenteeism as an exception. Or to use immersion instead – sudden blitzes of brainstorms and meetings rather like an in-house conference. This is already the model many businesses have pivoted to.
Bruce Daisley, an authority on the future of work and presenter of the podcast ‘Eat Sleep Work Repeat’ watches the trend closely. He told me:
Probably the most farsighted approach I have seen was Dropbox which said late in 2020 that getting people into the office for a certain number of days or specific days doesn’t work. Because people think, why am I going in to the office on Wednesday? Just because it’s Wednesday doesn’t make any sense. People will come in to the office when they need to and they will come in to the office for experiences.20
People will not come into the office, however, under duress. And if they do come, they will not stay loyal for long. In the summer of 2021 Google faced significant employee discontent when it announced that it intended to use its pay calculator to implement pay according to proximity to the office, reflecting the priority some employers still put on presenteeism.21 This strategy is risky and unfair as Sarah O’Connor commented in the Financial Times:
If two workers from the same head office want to switch to working from home, but one inherited a house in an expensive city while the other had been living in a commuter town, is it fair for the latter to take a pay cut?22
- “A tour de force of insight, clarity and . . . common sense.”—Adrian Wooldridge, global business columnist, Bloomberg
- “Where else are you going to find such enlightening insights into the future of work?”—James Bell, VP, Pew Research Center
- “A masterful analysis of the reinvention of work in a post-office world.”—Andrew Keen, author of How to Fix the Future
- “Julia Hobsbawm is brilliant at seeing tomorrow’s ideas today.”—Joy Lo Dico, columnist, Financial Times
- “Even-handed and sensible appraisal of the future of work. . . A priceless injection of nuanced thinking and practical suggestions.”—Rory Sutherland, vice chairman, Ogilvy UK
- “The Nowhere Office brilliantly captures the zeitgeist issue of our times—how and where we work.”—Ayesha Hazarika, journalist and broadcaster, Times Radio
- “Every manager or leader who is wondering what to do next about their offices and people needs to read The Nowhere Office.”—Ben Page, Global CEO, ISPOS
- “We need big bold thinkers like Julia Hobsbawm right now more than ever.”—Polly Mackenzie, chief executive, Demos
- “The pandemic has changed the way we work. Julia Hobsbawm’s The Nowhere Office makes the case for embracing the opportunities this brings.”—Financial Times, “The books to read in 2022”
- “An intriguing consideration of this bewildering “liminal in-between time in the history of work.”—Kirkus
- “[A] concise and highly readable assessment of where we are now, how we got here and where we might go.”—Forbes
- “Hobsbawm explores the future of both how — and where — we will work. It is in part a cast back over long-term trends that have shaped our working lives, part a treatise on the future of work and part practical handbook…While the book is clear-eyed about current and future challenges, the tone is optimistic…This enthusiasm will refresh anyone grappling with ‘the new normal.’”—Financial Times
- “Hobsbawm envisions a world in which a hybrid home/office model is the new normal…her message that ‘work can and should be not only a source of raw income but also a purposeful life itself’ is inspiring. CEOs, managers, and employees will take heart in this encouraging thought experiment.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Julia Hobsbawm, a British entrepreneur and public speaker on social health, examines why we need to rethink the necessity of being in the office and both the benefits and pitfalls of encouraging a work-from-home culture.”—Fortune
- “As higher education shifts to the new normal of endemic Covid, we must rethink the campus. The Nowhere Office is an excellent book to catalyze a conversation about the hybrid campus.”—Inside Higher Ed
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 208 pages