The Nowhere Office: What will it Mean?

Like many, I’ve been musing a lot on how new ways of working will transform who we think about community and economic development.  There’s no shortage of material on this topic, with countless articles predicting tough times for commercial real estate or projecting the end of cities, and so on.  I’ll admit that I’m still not certain where we’re headed, but I gained a lot of great insights from an excellent Demos paper called The Nowhere Office, by Julia Hobsbawm, Chair of the Demos Workshift Commission.  Hobsbawm is a well-known British business commentator, and an astute observer of our new ways of working.

The piece begins by noting that our ways of working have changed more in the past year than in the previous 100 years—correctly noting that these trends are more revolutionary than just new trends in the real estate industry.  As our places of work are revolutionized, work itself will also change dramatically.  Hobsbawm hits on three big sets of issues:  Place, Time, and Social Health.  Changes in Place will affect the real estate industry of course, but the impacts are more profound. How will people be trained and learn to collaborate when they never work in the same location?  Changes related to time are also revolutionary.  Hobsbawm suggests that time management will be a major hurdle in the Nowhere Office.  How will productivity be measured?  Will we work fewer and more flexible hours? Finally, social health is a critical and less well understood challenge.  If we are all working from home, where will we find social connection, combat loneliness, and build communities?  Where and how will we find meaning in work?  

Finally, all of these issues are baked into our current policy structures such as tax systems based on commercial real estate, infrastructure systems focused on commuting and business travel, and management systems based on “presenteeism” and hours worked.  These structures also face potentially revolutionary changes.

The paper admittedly offers more questions than answers.  I don’t know whether these ideas are “spot on,” as our British friends might say.  But, they are intriguing and well worth considering as we continue our path to new ways of working and beyond.