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Nowhere or nowhere?

In 1926 Henry Ford heralded a workplace revolution. The introduction of a five day working week at the Ford Motor plants changed both work and wider society, as workers spent their newfound leisure time shopping or socialising. The policy was formally adopted by the US government in the early 1930s before making its way across the Atlantic shortly afterwards.

But nearly 100 years later, the world of work has stagnated, argues Julia Hobsbawm. Prior to the pandemic, she posits, “work wasn’t working very well any more. I’m sure the people who were making lots of money thought it was, and companies who had embraced wellbeing programmes thought it was. But my analysis is that, for a long time, people have been unhappy.” Productivity has long been poor, employment remains below pre-pandemic levels and there are currently 1.1m job vacancies in the UK, 300,000 more than in early 2020.

The pandemic and the sudden switch to remote and hybrid working has left the workplace in a state of unprecedented flux. But it is also, Hobsbawm believes, an immense opportunity for work to be re-evaluated and revitalised.

“We’re in this moment in the history of work where we’re nowhere near where we were, and we’re nowhere near where we’re going to end up. We’re at a transitionary point. Society is, and the world is: geopolitically, technologically and generationally. We need to ask, and listen to, a wide range of players, to hear what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong and what the trends are, so that the design, build and operation of the future is better.”

The main risk is the temptation to make hybrid too rigid, she believes. Random edicts, like insisting employees are in the office two days a week, remove its inherent flexibility and leave companies at risk of “morgue offices”.

Talking from New York, where she has been seeing clients and visiting the Build Expo, she describes one office in a landmark Manhattan building. “It reminded me of visiting my father’s college as a child on a Sunday [her father was historian Eric Hobsbawm]. There were few people, it was sparse and very empty.

“The risk is that because it’s such a complicated thing to comprehend, you try and impose order on hybrid, and you end up with skeleton teams in morgue offices.” She also believes it is important to keep the elements of the office that were working well pre-pandemic.

The first is the workplace as a social destination. “Let’s embed that. Let’s come in for meals, to celebrate the annual report as well as somebody’s birthday. Let’s make it constructively social. Don’t make it about pointless meetings and pointless presenteeism.”

The second is learning, and specifically inter-generational learning. She has identified two groups of workers: leavers and learners. The former are older, more experienced and less tied to the office – they may be married or have families, they may have moved away during the pandemic, or have additional caring roles.

But they are skilled, responsible and senior, and do not need to come into the office regularly; spending intense periods in the workplace – a week every month or so – may be more suitable. In contrast, learners are more suited to regular office working. “They know nothing: these are the newbies, the green shoots. They’re like babies – and babies need to stay in one place. So, you design a situation where there are immersive learners with drop-in leavers.”

The final function of an office is conflict – as Hobsbawm says, “It’s not a good thing to do on Zoom. What I call disagreeing, somebody else may call brainstorming: figuring out, unpacking, unpicking. But conflict resolution – whether that’s creative or hostile – ask any trade union, any diplomat, you’ve got to get round the table.”

The pandemic has, a mere century since Ford revolutionised the workplace, irrevocably changed attitudes to how we work and live, and how hybrid working develops will have a profound impact on both.

“We’re all in this together,” Hobsbawm argues. “It’s not that I’m a utopian, or that I believe you can do away with structures, systems and hierarchies, or capitalism. I’m not a fantasist. But when you decide where, when and how people work because you’ve answered why they work, then that’s really exciting. The sky is the limit.”

Architect turned artist

Top – The 2021 artwork ‘Going In,’ by artist Luke Adam Hawker, nods to the collective experience of life in lockdown.

Bottom – 2014 artwork ‘Barbican’ by artist Luke Adam Hawker.
London’s Barbican is arguably the greatest piece of urban architecture of post-war Britain. It as a utopian piece of Brutalist/Modernist 1960’s architecture. It’s epic scale, complex repetitive geometric, and restrained palette of materials frames a car-free city within a city of 4,000+ residents, neatly organised around a lake with a lakeside terrace, gardens and fountains, shops, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls, the Barbican Library, and a world renowned multi-disciplinary cultural hub, the Barbican Centre, complete with tropical conservatory.

Visit to see more of Luke Adam Hawker’s exceptional work