Our false memory of work in 2019 is stopping us from having better conversations

We have taken the editorial decision to ignore the tedious, endless toing and froing between so-called return to office mandates and remote work. As much as we can, anyway.We have taken the editorial decision to ignore the tedious, endless toing and froing between so-called return to office mandates and remote work. As much as we can, anyway. It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere and it is driven by two noisily motivated factions who seem unable or unwilling to shift their position by the smallest amount. It is a very 21st Century conversation.

The only grim entertainment still to be extracted from this bickering can be found watching the wild fluctuations in people’s critical thinking skills when faced with sets of information that back up their intractable stance, and those that don’t.

Even those seeking out the compromise that has been known as hybrid working since 2020 may be engaging in a fruitless quest. In fact, they might even be the ones doing most to drive the debate into the ground. They are looking for something that doesn’t exist. The mythical sweet spot of days spent in an office and days spent at home.

It could even be that it is the fruitlessness of this quest that has driven some very large firms to declare ‘enough!’ and summon everybody back to the office five days a week. This looks like a mistake and not just because it clearly drives people mad. It’s probably not good for the business in other ways. They are returning to a world that never existed.

Nobody was talking about this in 2019. Instead, we would talk about flexible working, as part of a conversation that started with the technological revolution of the late 20th Century. As long ago as the mid-1990s in his book The New Office the great Frank Duffy wrote in a way that still resonates.

“Ways of working are changing radically. Information technology is seeing to that. Based on very new and very different assumptions about the use of time and space, new ways of working are emerging fast. They are inherently more interactive than old office routines and give people far more control over the timing, the content, the tools and the place of work.”

We appear to have forgotten what the world was really like in the pre-pandemic world. Many people enjoyed flexible times and places of work – although not enough of them. Offices were half empty, as they had been for decades. Spaces were underutilised. Some abandoned. Chances to work in better ways went begging.

There needed to be a correction for all of this, and it probably would have come anyway, slowly. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what people gain from being together at least some of the time and what offices are good at. We shouldn’t allow the noisy factions of the conversation to drown out what are often exciting or difficult truths.



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RIP Karl Wallinger