Most news is all about the immediate present. For instance, everything that is happening in the economy right now could be a historical anecdote in five years. But sometimes, norms change—and they stay changed for decades. I think the remote work revolution is just that sort of a paradigm shift. Here’s a stat that should blow your mind: Office occupancy across the U.S. is still just 43 percent of its pre-pandemic high. That means that white-collar offices have had a worse recovery than basically any other economic category—worse than restaurants, bars, stadiums, and even movie theaters. But who is remote work actually working for? What are offices good for? And how will the remote work revolution change the way we relate to each other and the places we live? Today’s guest is Julia Hobsbawm, the author of The Nowhere Office, a new book about the remote work revolution that combines history and reporting to ask a big, beautiful philosophical question: Is remote work making our lives better, or worse?
In this excerpt, Derek and Julia discuss the evolution of work since World War II and what set the stage for the “nowhere office” period.
Derek Thompson: You’ve written about this. I love the concept of work history and the idea that so many different things that we assumed in 2018, 2019 were just a part of the way things had always been—like the concept of a five-day work week, the concept of a 9-to-5 day, the concept of a career—these were all incredibly modern inventions. They had barely been around for 100 years. ... And so we are dealing with an inflection point that might just come around every century, every century and a half, and I really am just utterly fascinated by it. I want to talk about the winners and losers of office work versus remote work. I don’t think people talk about this enough when they evaluate the future of labor.
I don’t think there’s a clear acknowledgement that the office worked really, really well for some people and terribly for others and work from home works really well for some people and not so well for others. This is not like comparing democracy versus totalitarianism, something that’s clearly pretty good and something that’s clearly really bad. This is comparing two things that are good or bad for different people. So let’s start with the office, the before times. Who won in the office of 1950 to 2019, and who were the kind of people who lost out in the office culture of 1950 to 2019?
Julia Hobsbawm: So I frame the “nowhere office” period of work as the fourth phase following the Second World War, and I would say that the era of 1945 to 1977 was what you might call the “optimism years,” Derek. The optimism years, the simplicity years of Mad Men, of the corner office, were very much anchored and tethered to needing to go up several floors in an elevator or a lift, as I say it in England, into a place where the serried ranks of desks were masked, because that was where your kit was to do your work. That then changed in about 1977 in what I would call the “mezzanine years,” epitomized by that rather wonderful dystopian novel, existential novel really, of office life by Nicholson Baker, but that was an era in which you could almost physically feel work shifting and becoming intermediate.
The issue of flexibility, of rights, of human resources, of all the things that we are now harking back to, became visible, and of course, the technology moved closer to the person in the form of computers. Then you had the “coworking years” that began in 2007, which is the direct antecedent to the nowhere office. Without the coworking years that began with Tim Ferris’s extraordinary book The 4-Hour Workweek, that began with Twitter, Airbnb, that began not long after 2007 with WeWork, without that—and let’s face it, without the internet—you wouldn’t have had any of this chat about the end of the office as we know it. And then you have this extraordinary, globally unifying hard stop of the pandemic, and so suddenly my analysis is that you get this crystallization of a number of factors that were latent, that were aggravating workers, but they didn’t have their voice in a weird way, slightly like #MeToo.
Everybody knew what was going on, and then suddenly, everybody was talking about it and everyone was saying, “We’ve had enough,” slightly like Black Lives Matter. And one of the things that really struck me researching this book and one of the things that I think is defining the fact that it is never going to go back to how it was before is because minority groups, however you might define a minority group, but certainly people of ethnic minority and certainly women, have said that they find the microaggressions and the cultures of workplaces mean that they don’t want to just schlep back in as before. And that’s what I think makes this such an interesting point-of-no-return moment.
This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Julia Hobsbawm
Producer: Devon Manze