The Nowhere Office
This report by DEMOS explores how the coronavirus pandemic has created a new mode of working, conceptualised as the ‘Nowhere Office’, a new hybrid space which is multi-site, flexible in its working patterns and never 9-5.
The report begins by exploring how the future of work, commuting and office life may be radically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic for years to come. It recounts how 67% of professionals say they plan to work differently after the pandemic and that as much as 44% of all future work will be remote, according to the World Economic Forum.
However, in a world where the only certainty appears to be uncertainty, predicting the future is by no means an easy task. In 1996, DEMOS predicted the “death of the office” in an essay on ‘teleworkers’, yet only tentative steps were then taken towards the office-less future for the next quarter of a century - until we were forced out by a global pandemic.
Whilst it has taken some time, and an international health crisis, to prompt changes to the way that we engage with work, it has become clear that Covid-19 has triggered an eruption of the pressures which had been building up deep within working life for the last fifty years. These pressures include flexible working, remote working, automation, digitalisation, the expectations of Gen Zs, productivity and the ‘new kid on the corporate block’: purpose.
The report states that, just as our approach to work has shifted rapidly, so too has our values, embracing not just different physical working practices but emotional ones, or what the RSA calls ‘The Empathy Economy.’ This systemic shift, combined with the propulsive force of Covid-19, has “blown our working lives apart like a tornado”. The office has arguably become somewhere so alien to us, so poorly-defined, that it is now in the middle of nowhere, hence the title of this paper, ‘The Nowhere Office’.
DEMOS conceptualise the ‘Nowhere Office’ as a new hybrid space which will be multi-site, flexible in its working patterns and never 9-5. In this new setting, our working identities will become infinitely more varied and personalised, and there will no longer be a single one-size-fits-all ‘normal’ place of work, such as the skyscrapers of the 1930s onwards, which, the author states, “epitomises the silo, the single focus on work, on profit, on growth, and on separation of self from anything outside of ‘The Corporation’”.
But is this ‘placeless world’, The Nowhere Office, something to be entirely welcomed and is it the only future? The author thinks not, or rather, not completely. They elaborate on how WFH (Work from Home) is much less of a universal winner than one might imagine, as the pros and cons differ substantially according to personal circumstance. On a purely practical level, they argue that the ideal place for many people to work is ABH (Anywhere But Home), as not everyone’s home is a castle or a fit-for purpose workspace.
The paper continues by stating that our destination is not to Nowhere – but through it, to a better way of organising our working lives. In doing so, it explores the subject through three interconnected priorities of PLACE, TIME and SOCIAL HEALTH before concluding with a set of recommendations across each of these subject areas.
In terms of PLACE, the author states that Covid-19 has proved that no-one needs to go back full time to an office ever again. This is likely to have huge consequences and we don’t yet know who is paying for any - or all - of it. For example, how much will it cost to adapt our homes or repurpose corporate offices or remodel our travel networks? The urgency is around policies which are tailored to The Nowhere Office and policymakers need to rethink the tax structures around home-based energy bills, travel and commute pricing.
For TIME, the shift is already happening, with flexibility happening thanks to WFH. A lot will depend on leadership and management culture embracing a complete end to presenteeism (being present for its own sake) and a redrawing of what success looks like: based less on time spent in a linear way and more in a lateral, flowing model instead. Not a four-day week or a four-hour week, but something in between which is aligned to individual organisations and their workflow and workers.
Regarding SOCIAL HEALTH, it would help to recognise that the social self at work and home is now fully-connected and fully-merged. Far wider conversations than wellbeing need to take place, linked not just to productivity and growth, but to the meaning and belonging we derive from what we do and why. We should be campaigning for a new way to pay for time spent working, based perhaps loosely around set hours, but much more firmly around set outcomes, with flexibility, autonomy and experimentation priced in.