While the future of the workplace post-pandemic is anyone’s guess, it has attracted firm views in all camps in recent weeks. Some are heart sinking. Goldman Sachs’ CEO, David Solomon refers to continuing remote work as “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”. Others are cognisant of the need to move forward. Spotify’s leadership believe that happiness and productivity are inexorably linked to freedom of choice, not physical location: “Work isn’t somewhere you go, it’s something you do”.
McKinsey & Co’s February report on the future of work after COVID-19 highlights the extent to which jobs were immediately categorised between essential and non-essential, with fast, devastating and long-term consequences for those lumped into the latter. While the pandemic has removed freedom of choice and flexibility from many, the report notes that wills and skills were tested. From companies to governments, we witnessed displays of “extraordinary flexibility and adaptability in responding to the pandemic with purpose and innovation [...] in ways that point to a brighter future of work.” True workplace disruption may need to wait until difficult conversations about trust and presenteeism are had.
Demos’ just-published report, authored by social health thinker and doer Julia Hobsbawm, The Nowhere Office, grapples with: the location conundrum, the possible roadmap ahead and a re-examination of vital questions about how we work.
Here are my top 6 paraphrased takeaways from the Demos report:
The office as a concept has become somewhere so alien to us, and shapeless, that it is now in the middle of nowhere. The Nowhere Office not only represents a need to change our unproductive and harmful ways of working but must be recognised, valued, and experimented with. The great trends in management and leadership are all around small teams, pilot projects and iterating. Trial-and-error is key.
Productivity did not keel over when people shifted to a work from home model (despite stopping their commute, buying their skinny latte with extra foam on top, and gossiping in corridors). However, the ‘always on’ has come at the cost of our boundaries and mental health… not to mention public trust in truth or the general time-suck of it all.
Different physical working practices have brought about different emotional ones. Our values are shifting rapidly, driving what the RSA calls ‘The Empathy Economy.’
Work should be a source of connection, identity, purpose and humanity. It shouldn’t matter whether the office is somewhere, anywhere, or nowhere; what matters is whether it is a place worth being. It shouldn’t be a painful experience that needs compensating with various wellbeing initiatives.
Here is the abridged version of the three interconnected issues that the Nowhere Office can champion: Place, Time and Social Health.
Place: Where we locate ourselves to earn has always been the central pillar of work and its fundamental separation from home has been a given. The report predicts that the next phase of working office life is not likely to begin until the end of 2021. Covid-19 has shown that no-one needs to go back to an office full time ever again. The consequences are to be explored by the Workshift Commission*.
Time: If we are nowhere some of the time or even all of the time, is this the moment to re-evaluate how time itself is allocated and measured? Is it possible to have a better work-life balance in a meaningful way by relocating to ‘Nowhere’? The report predicts that a shift is in progress, with working from home offering increased flexibility. A lot will depend on leadership and management culture embracing a complete end to presenteeism and a redrawing of what success looks like.
Social Health: the challenge to stay safely connected will persist, requiring very specific coping strategies to maintain trust and productivity at distance, while protecting mental health. The report predicts that there will be a need to recognise that the social work/home self is now fully-merged. This goes beyond wellbeing, linked not just to productivity and growth, but to the meaning and belonging we derive from our purpose.
6. And finally... "it is going to take more than rearranging the chairs of a virtual office to make change happen. Many of us are ready to make that change and it does have to be ‘us’ and not ‘them’."
Hobsbawm surmises that “The only thing we can say with certainty about office life is that it has changed more for good in the last year than it has in the last hundred. [...] The Nowhere Office “must be recognised, valued, and experimented with. Trial-and-error is key.”
From a work culture perspective, the past year has certainly highlighted the very worst and the very best-in-class of behaviours at work and at home. The only way that we can begin to build thriving cultures, be they hybrid, purely remote or at the office, is to adopt a human-empath-centric, psychologically safe and flexible approach to culture-building. This is vital for employee meaning and belonging, work outcomes and the bottom line. Location doesn’t matter. Culture does.
Christina Clark Founder & CEO of Workculturati
*Demos appointed the entrepreneur and writer Julia Hobsbawm to lead Workshift, a new programme exploring the future of work and workplaces. The Workshift Commission will help to bring together innovators, experts and academics to help fill that void and start to provide some answers about future productivity and workplace wellbeing.
Julia Hobsbawm is Chair of the Demos Workshift Commission. She is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant about Social Health and the future of the workplace. She founded the network and media business Editorial Intelligence and the Social Capital Network for BAME professionals. She is a founding trustee of the medical technology charity OurBrainBank and The Quality of Life Foundation. Awarded an OBE in 2015 for Services to Business, she is the author of several mainstream business books addressing modern challenges for individuals and organisations including Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload (2017) and The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World (2020) which won two awards for best business book of the year and is a podcast and self-help brand. She is a columnist for PWC’s Strategy + Business, broadcasts regularly on Sky News and addresses global business audiences about Social Health.