Where did going to work go?
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Working in the post-pandemic world will be different, says Julia Hobsbawm, who thinks that the time has come to develop something more workable.
“The ‘Nowhere Office’ is a moment we are in today,” says Julia Hobsbawm. She’s referring not just to the title of her new book, but also to what she describes as a new kind of landscape in which we now work. Over the past two years we’ve had to recalibrate our approach to our employment and employees in the face of continually shifting restrictions brought about by Covid-19 public health restrictions. This readjustment she says, “wasn’t caused by Covid. But it was accelerated by it.”
Many of us now work in a “liminal space”, says Hobsbawm, which is an umbrella term for the elements that make up today’s hybrid working. This space lies between those who are able to carry on in their workplace unaffected and those who are totally remote, working on the other end of a wire and hardly ever physically checking in.
What Covid has done, says Hobsbawm, is push more people into a space that she accepts was already populated by internet-enabled and freelance businesses, “that have been not working from fixed offices for years”. What she’s describing in her book is the workforce that has been “surprised by recent circumstances into working this way and have been forced to think about issues that have been lurking around for a long time before the pandemic”. What ‘The Nowhere Office’ does is articulate this phenomenon and place it on the timeline of the world of work: “A world in which the office itself is no longer central. Not voided, but now inessential.”
Hobsbawm agrees that the nowhere office is a uniquely Fourth Industrial Revolution effect with networked digital communications as its foundation. For her, it is the most recent in a series of distinct eras of work that have occurred since the Second World War. First was growth and optimism, symbolised by skyscrapers which told the narrative that “the place where you worked was essential. It was presenteeism. There was no freelance working. Everything took place in an office.” Then there are the mezzanine years, “when computers and technology were beginning to make their presence felt, but ultimately the status symbol of work was still the office”.
Midway through the first decade of the 21st century, she says, “we moved into the mobile working years when absolutely any technology that wasn’t tethered to a cord could be taken out of the office, ushering in what the World Economic Forum called the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what I call in my book the nowhere office. This is a phase when technology has enabled people to work from anywhere.”
The Nowhere Office
The increase in flexible, totally remote and hybrid working ushered in (but not necessarily caused) by changing practices resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, mean that we are now living (and working) during one of the biggest employment culture shifts of the past century. So says Julia Hobsbawm in her analysis of a recent phenomenon that she subtitles ‘reinventing work and the workplace for the future’.
Even though we might currently be slowly drifting back to our broadly familiar nine-to-five existences, work, she argues, might never be the same again. In this crisply written account of the way we work today, the author draws on the history of the relationship between employer, employee and place, examines current research and data on workplace trends, and listens to the attitudes of leaders, only to find that we don’t all agree on the next steps forward. So what do we do next? Great stuff.
While technology may be ‘the backbone’ to this evolution, Hobsbawm’s argument is that it is there to support a shift in culture. “The pandemic has basically introduced a stock-take into the emotional and philosophical aspects of work.” Digital networks may well mean that we no longer have to be present in an office, “but what’s really driving the change is a combination of psychological and emotional factors”. It has caused workers to reflect on what their lives mean, argues Hobsbawm: “Does it mean trudging into the office? The commute. The office politics and everything that goes with that. Or does it mean something else?” Factor in generational and social attitudes and you’re left with a change that leads her to be convinced “that we are never going back to the way we did things before”.
Hobsbawm is keen to point out that ‘The Nowhere Office’ isn’t an anti-workplace revolutionary manifesto: “I’m not advocating that there be no offices, and I don’t predict that.” She says that she is not addressing the “problematic” issue of “fully remote”: rather she is explicitly examining the rise of hybrid working in which there is a balance between the requirement to be present in a central office location and that of working from home, both of which she sees as having plus and minus points. “I’m not looking at tech-first companies where there is almost no point of contact with the office. What I am looking at is the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere in relation to the norms that we took for granted before.”
Such norms can take superficial external forms such as “the coffee machine, or karaoke after work”. But they become more substantial when cast in the light of presenteeism: “Showing up for things and being around might help you to get a promotion. And so, the absence of those dysfunctional but vital norms can be upsetting for a lot of people.”
As workers increasingly join the ranks of the world of freelance – “the processional working class” – opportunities to network on an informal basis will recede, as will traditional career trajectories. Which means that “people have to get their heads around being a solopreneur,” a neologism coined by Hobsbawm to describe a freelancer “making their own luck” in the work ecosystem.
While this might be a scary prospect for the individual at the sharp end of wondering where the next job is coming from, it presents the ultimate nightmare for outdated management techniques built on control. Out of the window goes “top-down control based on surveillance of one form or another. Managers are going to have to develop a way of working collaboratively with a freelance workforce. The power is shifting away from the managers and they’re going to have to get used to that idea too, because workers are starting to realise that they can withdraw their labour in what’s called the Great Resignation.”
While the Great Resignation has numerically accounted for just 3 per cent of the workforce in the United States taking the step of leaving their jobs, Hobsbawm says that the number of people “prepared to resign if they are not given more flexibility by their employer could be as high as 50 per cent”.
Pandemic or no pandemic, this shift was coming down the track, says Hobsbawm. The effect of Covid-19 was to concentrate the move to the nowhere office in one swift global movement. Workers were already armed with the technology and the digital literacy to handle a change that has allowed us to re-evaluate our relationship with the nine-to-five.
‘The Nowhere Office’ by Julia Hobsbawm, is from Basic Books, £18.99
WFH: for and against
A Vodafone survey showed that 75 per cent of global companies had introduced some form of hybrid or flexible working post-pandemic before a full return to work. Yet considerable ambivalence remains among some leaders. In one camp you get hardliners who believe working from home 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 in New York City’,” echoing an equally robust statement from David Solomon of Goldman Sachs that working from home was “an aberration”. Similarly, the veteran Wall Street observer William Cohen simply said this: “Here’s my advice to you, fellow Wall Street drones: Get back to the office.”
In another camp are the more emollient hybrid soft-liners such as Kevin Ellis, London-based chairman of consultancy firm PwC with 285,000 employees in 155 countries, who said that, “we want to enshrine new working patterns so that they outlast the pandemic”.
Regardless of which camp employers are in, it is obviously true that an awful lot of social capital resides in the office. I talked with 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.”
These comments reflect a wistfulness on the part of big business which can no longer attract the worker prepared to work in the same way they did before the pandemic.
Edited extract from ‘The Nowhere Office’ by Julia Hobsbawm, reproduced with permission
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