An office revolution

Julia Hobsbawm’s new book argues that the pandemic has highlighted endemic problems with the office that need to be addressed – and that is about how people are managed.

Stressed women at laptop

 

Office work has not been working since well before the pandemic, according to a new book.

In The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future, author and entrepreneur Julia Hobsbawm outlines the endemic productivity issues associated with office work and the crisis of burnout which pre-date the pandemic. She proposes a radical new way of thinking about work, both now and in the future, which does not wholly embrace remote working either. She is very clear on the challenges remote and hybrid working place on employers, but also aware of the benefits. Her argument is that now is the time to develop something better, more meaningful, and, crucially, more workable.

Speaking at the Resolution Foundation last week, she acknowledged that most people don’t work in offices, although she said office work is the faster growing area of work and that technological innovations mean more jobs are becoming office-based.

She said that employers need to think more carefully about why the office has not worked up until now, citing figures on the number of working days lost to stress. “Why is office work so dysfunctional?” she asked.

Covid has been a huge experiment and the plan was, she said, for a temporary pause on office working and then a return. “That plan has failed,” said Hobsbawm. In the process the pandemic experiment has thrown up lots of questions about how we work. In the US, for instance, there is a lot of support – and a bill before Congress – about the four-day week. Companies have invested heavily, meanwhile, in technology to enable more remote working. They are unlikely to throw that aside, she said. People have become more connected to their home lives too.

Hobsbawm said that employers are putting too much energy into the issue of where people work and into repurposing buildings. “That ship has sailed,” she stated. Covid has connected work not to place so much as to time and meaning. Employers therefore need to look more closely at what makes people feel engaged and productive and that is greater agency, more trust and better management.

She said that she is not arguing that working from home necessarily makes people more productive, but that there needs to be a greater focus on what does and why offices have failed in this regard. She cited tech companies like Apple which tried to force people back to the office only to meet pushback as well as UK government ministers who have encouraged people back to the office and who now realise that the world has changed.

Hobsbawm said there is still a place for offices – particularly headquarters, citing US companies who are using short, sharp immersive approaches to office work. Moreover, in her view, a four-day week is not flexible enough while hybrid working may benefit from more rigidity just so that people can get together in one place. However, the most important thing that employers need to consider, she stated, is how to improve work. “Work can and should be better,” she said.



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