The unshocking truth about work and workplaces

I recently read an interesting little book called Office by Sheila Liming. It’s a small book, easy to read in a sitting and linked to a series of essays in The Atlantic. The author is a Professor of English so it’s no surprise to find that it’s beautifully written and draws on a range of sources to illustrate its points. It’s pretty sound on its own terms but also illustrates perfectly what is wrong with so many current narratives about work. The writing may not be clichéd but the thinking often is.

Here we have the standard history of the office, the standard critiques of open plan including references to debunked and unsound research, the standard references to offices in movies, the always impending ‘death of the office’ and the almost total focus on city centre corporations, tech firms and the US experience.

This may be down to the book’s use of Nikil Saval’s book Cubed as its touchstone, which follows the same path, but even Saval acknowledged his book’s restricted focus. The author of Office laments in her conclusion that we won’t see the end of the office, but her lamentation arrives because she has spent the previous 90 pages pathologising it.

It’s unfair to single this book out for that because it has many things to say on the subject of workplaces. But it does maintain the narrow focus and cloaking of tired ideas which are common even in business publications that should know better.

Hence Forbes running a feature on remote work based on the approach of GitLab, which suggests that the firm’s experience offers a blueprint for every business. Although an excellent and successful approach in its own right, it really doesn’t. It offers lessons for some and for many of these only in parts. Boring but true. This is not the fault of GitLab, but the media. There are valuable lessons offered by the firm’s experience, but they are not universal.

From a journalist’s point of view, this may all be a way of avoiding the paradoxically simple and complex truths about most people’s working lives. It is better to stick to clichés, standard narratives and received wisdom than to accept uncomfortable facts, complexity, mundane reality and nuance.

As one of my heroes Hannah Arendt put it: “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”.


The unshocking truth

In the case of the office, this reality is not even shocking. For the majority of people, it is a reality made up of banal truths. Not least that for most of them, the office building is neither a source of happiness nor unhappiness. They work in perfectly decent but mundane surroundings, don’t work for tech firms, don’t work in central business districts and don’t worry about the effect remote work has on the fortunes of Pret a Manger. In the case of the UK, 86 percent don’t even work in London.

Their daily experience of work is determined by the culture of the organisation and the relationship they have with their jobs and colleagues, as well as their personal circumstances and preferences. This was all a truism even before the current crisis and the redesign of the office or its termination won’t affect that experience without more difficult changes, some of which are none of the organisation’s business anyway.

All of these criticisms can be aimed at other analyses of what will happen. There’s the suggestion from Deutsche Bank that people who sometimes work remotely should be taxed for the occasions they do, which would be a daft idea without even considering the complexities of administering such a policy. It is perhaps based on the supposition that people work 9 to 5 for large organisations in city centres and their work can be split into neat chunks of three days here and two days there, or should be.

Then there’s this equally fanciful claim that the change in work will lead to ‘the greatest migration in human history’. Here too we find the ‘office is dead’ claim, dressed up as ‘the office is a legacy issue’. But it really all starts with a conflation of the general term ‘location independent work’ with the specific idea of ‘digital nomads’ and goes downhill from there.

Again it is an argument based on the experiences of high income workers in tech fields, like the author, probably those younger masters of the universe who want to and  can spend their summers in Bali and winters in Courchevel.

Good luck to them I say, but to leap from that to arguing that 80 million people in Europe and North America could migrate is quite a stretch, even assuming that the Canary Islands would allow 200,000 of them to pitch up. The fact that these suppositions are based on surveys of the author’s Twitter followers and a survey from a godawful gig work website does nothing for the argument.

There is no question that the shift of the past few years, accelerated over the last nine months, will open up new opportunities but these are just more and better choices available to us.

Far more people than is often assumed will be returning to ‘normal’ work or a close approximation of it in the near future. Many others will find they return to better offices and working cultures. Many will return to no work at all, or more precarious work, or lower incomes as organisations contract work out and automate it.

It may not be possible to consider all of these experiences in a single book or a single article, but we need to acknowledge them. We can ignore people and leave them behind but we know from recent history they’ll catch up with us at some point.

Image: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, 1604