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Where is The Nowhere Office Now?
Are we back or aren't we? And an exclusive extract on The Pandemic Effect on work.
London. 13 February 2023
The above photograph is a still from The Apartment, the award-winning 1960 film directed by Billy Wilder starring Jack Lemmon as the insurance clerk who moves from being a docile insurance clerk abused by his bosses to being a very unquiet quitter.
Well, we’re light years away from the cubicle farm years now. We’re light years away from bosses thinking they can and even should get away with asking those reporting to them to do whatever they want (in this case letting them have your apartment for trysts with secretaries).
Irony of course: The film is called The Apartment and how prescient that title was unintentionally: Home working or working-from-home has become a battleground all by itself. A year on from its first publication this week sees the paperback of my book and how much has changed?
Well, everything and nothing. We are inching back to life, but Covid is still very much with us. We are inching back to the office, but pushback remains, hybrid has become normalised and the issue is beginning to focus on recruitment and productivity and especially the young.
We’re still nowhere where we were in relation to old office life pre-pandemic: I write more on this in the new preface to the book and of course you can subscribe to my Bloomberg fortnightly columns on this too.
Some interesting things to chew on:
The UK Office for National Statistics latest Characteristics of Homeworkers which remarks tellingly: homeworking is resilient to pressures such as the end of restrictions and increases in the cost of living.
Visitor Experience is key for those who do wish to get people back to the office, more of which is covered in the current episode of The Nowhere Office podcast with one of corporate real estate’s titans: Michael Creamer of Cushman & Wakefield.
Incidentally, the podcast has passed 10,000 downloads (yay!) and we’re branching out into research around different demographics globally. If you’d like to know more contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org and meantime you can follow the pod on Twitter @nowhereoffice and download and noodle around the episodes yourself.
Finally, here is that extract I promised. It is from a book I was delighted to be asked to contribute to: The Pandemic Effect published by Princeton Architecture Press.
I am no architect, but I design space in my head. Specifically, the impact physical space has on the headspace which work and the workplace occupies culturally and socially, including the question of how, when and where we work. What space should ‘the office’ as a fixed space hold in the future of work?
Even before Covid-19 the world of work was messing with our heads, causing the World Health Organisation to declare that stress was the health epidemic of the 21st century. It has been epically dysfunctional for years (just search ‘toxic workplace’) but one thing everyone took for granted was that offices themselves were not a major part of the problem.
That is not quite true of course. ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ has been around for a while and air quality will clearly be a key legal/safety and practical issue going forwards. But I mean something else. Huge amounts of faith has been put into corporate office space as a gigantic piece of virtue signaling for hundreds of years: offices convey status, power, intention. I once had an office in London’s vast neoclassical complex Somerset House. We were up in the eaves of the former Stamp Office, the ultimate palace of eighteenth century bureaucracy, during the early 2000s when the office became almost like a fashion accessory: you had to be somewhere cool or your business or enterprise wasn’t cool.
I realized one day that having the most glamorous office in the world wasn’t the same as having a functional working space, where the projects, people and purpose thrived. That wasn’t down to the environment only but the work itself. From that day my operation became hybrid, working partly from fixed spaces and partly from that other place – cyberspace.
Like Corbusier before them, post-pandemic architects will be redesigning offices not just for clean and safe aesthetic but for reflecting the point and purpose of a changed – and changing set of workers. People who value mobility, home-life and for whom the office may be more of a stopping-off point than a base.
There is a wonderful scene in Herman Melville’s iconic mid-nineteenth story of office life, Bartelby The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street in which the exasperated protagonist, feeling his power slipping, says to his wayward employee “My mission in this world, Bartelby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain”. This now is the question: what remains of the office? The answer is complex but the simple summary is this: Not what it was before.