Work: Whose Aberration Now?
Talking about Revolution in the Workplace - Nowhere Here and Now
2nd May 2022
Talk about a revolution. Nothing short of one is happening in the world of work.
I’m going to take you through six trends I think are becoming evident.
It has been over two years since the pandemic started and over two months since my book The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future was published, generating a significant range of comment such as this Bloomberg article.
Here’s what I think is happening.
Trend 1: Power is Shifting
“Office-bound work is a technology from the last century, from the era before ubiquitous video-call-capable internet and everyone being on the same internal chat application. But the future is about connecting, no matter where they are based”.
So say Apple workers, the latest in a surprising line of those working in glamorous tech companies who are firmly rejecting going back to the office: Next week should mark the beginning of a phased ‘RTO’ (Return to Office’ for Apple, their third go at getting people back in.
The Apples are upending the applecart, and shock horror, unionising, following in the footsteps of Amazon workers.
Although the office itself is morphing into a space you can drop in and out of as much as sit in a place of presenteeism, workers are rebelling more widely against the toxic workplace of old, in which work’s meaning and management left a lot to be desired.
A tight labour market (I’m English, so I’m spelling Labor with a ‘u’), a disgruntled multi-generational workforce who have had had 800-plus days to lay down new habits are all conspiring to stop letting managers and leaders keep control.
Trend 2: Leaders are Losing
Being on the wrong side of Culture, trying to shame workers as the UK’s Jacob-Rees-Mogg has done looks the opposite of strong: it looks weak.
David Solomon of Goldman Sachs is the poster-man for all of this of course. By calling ‘WFH’ an “Abberation” he has gone down in history. Someone in finance poo-pooed this development to me the other day and said as long as Goldman Sachs continues to rake it in who cares? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Up to a point.
The smart leadings are putting Culture front and centre of the shifts in power, as I wrote of Citi in this recent piece for Strategy + Business.
Trend 3: Hybrid is Hard
That is not to say that making hybrid work is easy peasy lemon squeezy. Quite the opposite. The asymmetry - I have sympathy with those who long for the old one-size-fits-all model of an at-desk world where you had simple job titles like ‘Typewriter’ -
but the world has moved on. Hybrid has to mean true flexibility - something the writer Annie Auerbach makes brilliantly and who we will feature in a forthcoming episode of The Nowhere Office Podcast.
The organisations who are making hybrid work are doing so workplace by workplace, team by team. They are asking and listening, not issuing edicts. And they are recognising that where the tech works, let it work.
Trend 4: Technology Works!
Yes, guess what? The tech, when it isn’t glitching, when it isn’t a tangle of passwords and usernames and ‘you’re on mute’ is the saviour of work. not the enemy. Yes we know from the latest Microsoft Trends Survey that we spend way too much time online - meetings have gone up over 250% online and the problem is back-to-back Teams or Zooms but, but BUT: We are, as Nicholas Bloom of Stanford has consistently said, more productive, at least by early evidence.
The tech enables us to collaborate well, communicate well - yes, in certain circumstances the equality of the square same-size video box is better than in-the-room politics and micro-aggressions for instance - and have freedom to be productive in many more circumstances than we thought before.
Caveat: I’m not arguing for fully remote. ‘The Nowhere Office’ is no no-office, nor is it a denial that certain workplaces need certain kinds of workers in, at desk, at post, around each other for some of the time or all of the time. The tech is for the in-between times.
There is no putting the genie back in the bottle nor do we need to. Adaptation is the key. Realpolitik around what really is happening and needs to happen. Technology is going to be better used, for better use. That’s all good.
Trend 5: Serendipity can be Scheduled
Look, I get it: The Watercooler. Young People. We know how important face-to-face contact is in a Facebook World: I’ve been literally saying this for six years since my book Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload first came out. BUT. You can schedule social health, in which the way people connect, where they connect, as immersive away-days or away-weeks or just weekly lunches or get-togethers, and it can be just as socially and commercially useful, productive and engaging as the rather baggy and messy old model of Always-In.
There is nothing to say you have to go through a turnstile and up 17 floors to get to a watercooler. This is why the winners in terms of office space will be mostly not offices spaces at all but co-working spaces, hotels, coffee shops, homes. (More on this anon as there is much ground to cover here)
Trend 6: The Commute is Over
Of course, the commute as we knew it was over. It is hardly surprising that Apple’s uprising is beginning in Atlanta, which has some of the worst commuter-belt freeways. Commutes out of sync, intermittent, or moving the centre of operational gravity from the city to the suburb: these are all changes which are happening and happening now.
You can see the full range of interviews and articles from Sky News and LBC to The Washington Post to The Guardian ,to podcasts such as Eat, Sleep, Work Repeat and Ctrl, Alt Delete here.
Please leave a comment, follow me on Twitter @juliahobsbawm or @thenowhereoffi1 for podcast news, or on Instagram @itsjuliahobsbawm