Some brutal realities about the future of work

The future of workNo author uses the built environment like J G Ballard. In his 1975 novel High-Rise, the eponymous structure is both a way of isolating the group of people who live and compete inside it and a metaphor for their personal isolation and inner struggles. Over the course of three months, the building’s services begin to fail. The 2,000 people within, detached from external realities in the 40-storey building, confronted with their true selves and those of their neighbours, descend into selfishness and – ultimately – savagery.

“Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them”, Ballard writes. The appeal of gated communities and their breakdown in a near-future is an idea he returns to often in his work. And although a Brutalist high rise lends itself to the idea of class and hierarchy, that isn’t his main theme. “People aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers”, he said in a 1998 interview. “They’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]They’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves[/perfectpullquote]

This impulse is something we need to be aware of in our conversations about the role of work in our lives. It’s not talked about enough right now and we need to be aware of it at a time when social media is already marooning us from other people and their realities. There are signs already that we are disconnecting as a result of lockdown, as a large scale study from France shows. This cannot be our vision of the future of work.

Even those now returning to work can feel disconnected from each other and more hostile in each other’s presence. This hostility linked to isolation can manifest in some very bad ways indeed, as this piece in The Guardian demonstrates, before exploring the ways out of the challenges it raises.

The subject of isolation is explored in typically excellent style by Dror Poleg in this piece which draws parallels between our online bubbles and those that are forming in the analogue world.

“Under the economics of scarcity, locations are optimized to appeal to the highest number of people. This is true for apartment buildings, for office buildings, and for cities as a whole. Most of the people I see on the street in New York are different from me. We have different backgrounds, different levels of income, and different tastes. As we walk by each other, each of us is listening to a different song on their Airpods, but all of us are sharing the same physical space.

But under the economics of abundance, we will no longer have to share the same space. The locations we will occupy could become as customized to our taste as the songs on our playlist. This means that the distribution of people and economic activity could — and likely would — become more segregated.

Online, we can already retreat into our own bubbles and avoid any people and ideas that are not to our taste or outside of our comfort zone.

Offline, there is plenty of segregation as well. But cities force us to interact with people from a diversity of backgrounds, income brackets, and ideological groups.

Cities might soon lose the power to do so.”


Death in the Valley

These are serious concerns as firms look to abandon the business districts of major cities in favour of more local work settings. Steve LeVine looks at the possible impact on Silicon Valley here, especially how quick tech firms have been to discard the idea of serendipity that has been one of their drivers for many years without any clear idea of what might replace it.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When Florence declined in the 16th century, it was not replaced by another concentration of artistic genius. The world simply went without[/perfectpullquote]

“There is a risk if we don’t get it right. History’s creative hubs have been ephemeral — when Florence declined in the 16th century, it was not replaced by another concentration of artistic genius. The world simply went without. Granted, Florence didn’t have Zoom or the cloud, but so far both of those have fallen short in the present crisis. If a demise of serendipity leads to Silicon Valley’s decline, the world is unlikely to get an equal substitute. We may simply lose our engine of technological advancement.”

There are signs of a pushback against the kind of thinking that would see us discard the benefits of presence, while acknowledging that we can’t (and indeed shouldn’t) go back to where we were. Gerry Taylor of Orangebox puts it rather well here.

“We … need to remember that, while a comfortable family environment and a readily available space for focused work have eased the transition to home working for many of us, not everyone’s circumstances are as conducive to productivity. For younger generations particularly, who we know want and need to be mentored, and who tend to live in shared, cramped inner-city homes with no dedicated workspaces and little or no outside space, being forced to work from home full-time would be both a mental health and a productivity disaster.

 It’s also clear that video calls and meetings, despite their utility, will never let us grasp the vitality offered by the nuances of face-to-face conversation, being able to read people’s body language or forge multiple human connections during our workday.”


Diving in

He is raising another issue that tends to get overlooked in much of the current debate about remote working and the future of work, namely that not everybody’s experience of it is the same. In the UK, the debate is typically and tiresomely framed around London, and often around the tech and finance sectors.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The reality for an awful lot of people is that they don’t have space for a desk, never mind a spa[/perfectpullquote]

So, while an article in The Times might quote a trader extolling the virtues of working from home because he can be in his swimming pool by 5pm, the reality for far more people is that they don’t have space for a desk, never mind a spa. These people don’t miss the idiocy of the daily commute, but they are being asked to replace it with something equally soul destroying.

They are the victims of some of the shaky notions we now have to contend with in these conversations about the future of work. Most obviously these centre on the tedious and daft idea that we are seeing the end of the office in its entirety. I understand that many of these features then go on to suggest that the office will continue to exist in a different form, but it’s the headlines that pollute the narrative and spawn the clichés.

These then erupt to the surface in the form of pustulent stories such as the one about how remote work will lead to the deformation of people into pyjama clad gargoyles, suspiciously similar to those that would inhabit the office in the worst workplace story from 2019. Somebody else can speculate why both of these grotesques are women.

We are also seeing the proliferation of design ideas for the home office that should give HR departments and ergonomists conniptions. There are several explosives ticking away underneath the sudden shift to remote work. Litigation for physical disorders is one of them, alongside the surge in mental health issues and the cost to people of firms using their homes as offices.

We must hope that better informed and more nuanced narratives prevail as we discuss the future of work. So stop reading nonsense in that awful rag The Independent and anywhere else that talks about the new normal and the death of the office without irony. Instead go straight to the sources of better ideas. Listen to this podcast. Read this article. Most of all, escape the bubble, descend the high-rise, get out of your own head and spread the love. And wear a mask.

Image: A Lady Writing a Letter by Vermeer. Public Domain , National Gallery of Art.