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Building the Nowhere Office

12 March, 2021

As we approach a year of working from home, long-standing discussions about the future of work and the workplace have intensified. But, for the first time, we have a global-scale test case to build on.

This week, ‘The Nowhere Office’, a fascinating and highly-readable report on office work by the estimable Julia Hobsbawm, was published by Demos. Hobsbawm argues that we are long overdue a ‘workshift’ in how we conceive of and manage our working lives in three areas: the space we work in, the way we structure our work time, and what she calls social health – our relationships, networks and sense of meaning. The genie is out of the bottle on the office-based 9-5.

Regarding space, physical offices serve an important function, not least for those for whom home working is far from rosy. Offices bring people together socially and productively, particularly for more creative tasks. But the spaces we work in will be unlike the traditional office – “Covid-19 has proved that no-one needs to go back full time to an office ever again.” In terms of our time, we have to find new ways of valuing work, and reject a return to physical or digital presenteeism. People need more control over their time to be able to use it more productively. At the centre of Hobsbawm’s idea is social health. We need to reimagine not only the workplace, but work itself. We are social animals and nurturing our relationships is not only good for us, but good for our work too. Working culture needs a transformation to recognise this.

The subject is hugely complex and the paper spans topics from open-plan working to diversity to digital wellbeing to information overload. Read it – there is much food for thought. Hobsbawm’s vision is a huge challenge to the status quo for employers, but also for all of us in how we feel comfortable working. It reminds us that we must actively engage with this important question, otherwise others will do so on our behalf and to our detriment. Her thinking inspires and demands enormous change, and implores us not to miss this opportunity.

By Ben Wood

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