The Great Relearning about the Great Office Problem

A person using computer in style of edward hopper in an office at nightOne of the latest people to invent activity-based working is sociologist Ana Andjelic, who combines it with the similarly familiar hub and spoke office model on her substack as a solution to the Great Office Problem. She’s not the first and is a less surprising pioneer of a decades old model than some other people who should really know better. That includes an architectural practice who came up with the idea earlier this year and whose name escapes me.

I would be lying if I said this kind of stuff hadn’t irritated me over the past two or three years. But a couple of things have also caused me to rethink the motivations for that irritation. The first is that I think some of the most important insights into work and workplaces now come from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, rather than real estate and office design. The latter two of which still seem to be struggling at times to make sense of where we are.

The other is a conversation I had recently with Jeremy Myerson about his new book Unworking. In the book, he cites a 1987 essay from Tom Wolfe called The Great Relearning, which predicts that the 21st Century will be characterised by paroxysms of reinvention of things already known. As Myerson and co-author Philip Ross write:

“Wolfe described a process of starting from zero that was evident in many fields. He referenced the year-zero approach of the San Francisco hippy movement of the 1960s to the laws of personal hygiene, for example, which resulted in diseases not seen by medics for centuries – ‘the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot’.”

Full disclosure: I have known Jeremy and Philip for nearly thirty years and indeed worked with Jeremy in the mid-1990s on communicating the ideas behind an office furniture system aimed at a new market for agile office space, remote and flexible working and furniture that acted more like tech than architecture. The kind of thinking that is also regularly reinvented, as it has been by Vitra in its new concept Denizen.

This kind of convergent evolution is well known in nature too. In a wider business and creative context, it leads to the paradox of reboots and reinventions proliferating at a time of massive technological shifts, new discoveries and new thinking.

We seem to be relearning how important flexible working is, as opposed to the still inexplicable fixation we’ve developed with hybrid working and its core premise that we should all spend set times in set places. This synthesis of an old idea to resolve the unnecessary conflict between advocates of ‘TWaT’, ‘remote first’ and ‘RTO’, is characterised by this piece from Will Hutton, although I don’t think he goes far enough in arguing for flexibility instead of hybrid.


Meanwhile, in Muskworld

Elon Musk continues to fascinate and appal. His latest gift for the workplace chatterers is the introduction of sleeping quarters at his offices. Now, a lot of people have jumped on this toxic behaviour, but I do wonder if the problem is the Travelodge look of these things. He might have had a more sympathetic reception if he’d introduced sleep pods of the sort that were lauded by some Musk-critical media outlets when Google introduced them a few years ago.

James Dyson also managed to attract some of the same ire this week by fulminating in The Times [paywall] about some imaginary ‘flexible working diktat’. His core point that there are sound business reasons for people to work for significant periods in the same place at the same time is backed up by some pretty serious evidence.

But, it’s complicated, not universally true, and there are better ways to discuss it than this, especially for a man who has not always exhibited enlightened business practices in the past. Some of the ideas raised by Dyson are better explored in this paper by Matt Clancy.


And, finally