The Future Of Office Work With Julia Hobsbawm – #318

The Future Of Office Work With Julia Hobsbawm

The Future Of Office Work 

As remote working becomes the norm rather than the exception for many office workers around the globe, my guest today proposes a radical new way of thinking about work both now and in the future. Julia Hobsbawm is an entrepreneur, writer, and consultant who addresses the challenges of the hyper-connected age, in particular remedies of what she has called Social Health for organizations. She is Chair of The Workshift Commission and is Founder and Chair of the content and connection business Editorial Intelligence. Her bestselling book The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World won two US Awards for Best Business Book and Best Self-Help Book of 2020. Her latest book ‘The Nowhere Office’ offers a strategic and practical guide to negotiating this pivotal moment in the history of work, including the challenges of remote working, repurposing offices for more creative interaction, managing WFH teams, and satisfying the demand for more purposeful work with greater work/life balance.

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The Future Of Office Work With Julia Hobsbawm

James Taylor 0:00
I’m James Taylor and you’re listening to the super creativity podcast a show dedicated to inspiring creative minds like yours, as remote work becomes the norm rather than the exception for many office workers around the globe, but my guest today proposes a radical new way of thinking about work both now and in the future. Julia Hobsbawm is an entrepreneur, writer, and consultant who addresses the challenges of the hyper-connected age in particular remedies or what she has called Social Health for organizations. She is chair of the work shift commission and is founder and chair of the content and connection business editorial, intelligence, her best selling book, The simplistic principle six steps towards clarity in a complex world, one-two US Awards for Best Business Book and best self-help book of 2020. Her latest book, The nowhere office, offers a strategic and Practical Guide to negotiating this pivotal moment in the history of work, including the challenges of remote working, repurposing offices for more creative interaction, managing work from home teams, and satisfying the demand for more purposeful work with greater work-life balance. Welcome to the super creativity podcast.

‘The Nowhere Office’

Julia Hobsbawm 1:08
Thank you so much for having me, James. I love these introductions. Because when my children say Mum, you know, nothing. I know, I might know something, actually. Thank Well,

James Taylor 1:19
it is lovely having you on the show. And as I was thinking about this book, is very, you know, the very condensed book is packed in a huge amount into it. And as I was reading, I was thinking this must be a very difficult book to publish into, right? Because we’re in this strange stage. It’s almost like this, that we had a guest on the other day that was talking about, I said, What are you working on? Did he say, working on a book about NFT’s? And how do you write a book about NFT, something that’s moving all the time, your topic is something that’s moving all the time, there are new reports coming out that new data coming out?

Julia Hobsbawm 1:52
It nearly killed me. And I was gonna say, how was

James Taylor 1:55
it? How was the process, it was

Julia Hobsbawm 1:57
fantastically difficult, partly because even though it’s a business book, hopefully, a mainstream business book, I, it’s creative, it’s a creative process. And you have to connect with what you feel, and what you know. And then you have to find the words in the right order. And in fact, I’m not making any claims to greater writing than anyone judges it to be. But I wanted to write well, and so that was, in a way, my first challenge is, you want every single sentence and word to matter. I put a lot of store-by the epigraph. So I like to make each chapter opens with a couple of epigraphs. And then you put them in and then the publishers go, well, we’re not sure we can get the permissions on that and you go, but it alters the whole meaning, you know, it’s a fraught, emotional creative process. To answer your point, I think more directly, it was like trying to hit a moving target is the answer to your question, because then whole future of work is so volatile. However, I think I’m a bit of a maverick in that. I don’t really care what anybody else thinks I care what I feel is right. And I felt very clearly that this was a moment when the sort of RCR regime of attitudes around work was ending, and that it didn’t matter what people said, and it’s very interesting this week, Bloomberg has run a really big piece with a headline that says something like Goldman Sachs’s work from office policy is the aberration now, and it refers to a quote that may or may not have been out of context, where the chief executive of Goldman Sachs said, midway through 2020, possibly early 21, that working from home was an aberration. And the narrative, while I was writing this book, was very much well, everyone’s just going to go back to the office. So why are you writing a book that’s got a negative title of the nowhere office? And why are you arguing that things have changed? And I just thought, well, I may be wrong, but I don’t think I am. And so I, that was difficult, as well. So I was trying to keep up to date with the, with the data in the news, because obviously, if I didn’t reflect that, and that would be, you know, not relevant. But I also felt challenged to stick to my beliefs.

James Taylor 4:38
It must always be difficult for me, I don’t know when you had to do the final sign-off of this book. And it went to, you know, editors, because it goes through all the different processes and some of these, it takes a year year and a half before from someone else or giving a book to the publisher to actually coming out. So I’m wondering how long was this time? And how were you feeling as maybe new reports, news Studies, new surveys, new things were kind of coming to light in that messy middle that middle time,

Julia Hobsbawm 5:04
it was really agonizing. So in something like November of 2020, I had a discussion with a brilliant woman called Polly McKenzie at the DeMoss Think Tank. And she set up something called the work shift commission. And she asked me to chair it, and I said, Well, I thought I could do a position paper on these ideas, called the nowhere office. And I was already setting up a podcast I have called the NOAA office. So I kind of had a feeling that you know, it was a catchy title that would resonate. And the paper came out in March and got really good pick up the FTA, and the economist and the today program and all that sort of stuff. And so I spoke to my agent, and she sold the book to Hachette in the UK in the US. And then, of course, they wanted it really quickly. And so then there was a bit of negotiation on how quick because publishing is, in fact, pretty slow. And then there is this agonizing time lag between something going to press and being printed? And you? Yeah, you think crikey that could just be completely out of date. So it became a little bit of a hassle. So I wrote it. First Draft, did it, and kept doing it. And, you know, to answer your question, precisely, it went to press something like very late December.

James Taylor 6:33
Wow, that’s really quick, the turnaround in terms of the publisher that starts pretty

Julia Hobsbawm 6:38
negotiated. And it’s like when you know, because, as you say, something happens all the time.

Future Of The Office

James Taylor 6:44
Yeah. Well, one of the quotes you start that you started, I think the fact the very first chapter in the book is a lovely quote from the Don Draper character from HBO series Mad Men. So I do wonder, you’re based in North London, there’s a wonderful comedy writer there. Ricky Gervais lives in North London. And he wrote, obviously, the office that 2010 and a madman, and you’ve got, you know, with everything that the West Wing, they all kind of immortalize a side of the office. And I do you feel a little bit sorry for comedy writers now, and for TV writers, because they don’t have this place anymore. This mythical place?

Julia Hobsbawm 7:16
Well, that’s a brilliant point, because one of the things I write about in the book is that I noticed in myself, that my husband and I watched a lot of programs where the dynamic the arc depends on the office, we love the Harry Bosch detective programs that are Amazon Prime and go on for something like seven series. And, you know, whatever else that is, it’s about a detective out in the streets of LA, but it’s also about the office politics is actually about his paperwork. It’s you know, and so I realized, there’s loads of dramatic context. And I think this is the big issue when we think about the future of the office anyway, is the narrative role that a place that we go to this fixed plays in our lives? What’s good, what, what are our memories going to be like, if they’ve changed, so in some ways, my inspiration, I think, for calling this concept if you like, the nowhere office, which is really about a phase of work that we’re in, is because my first big corporate job was as a 21-year-old working at Penguin Books in the King’s Road in 1985. And the talking heads road to nowhere played in the office. And I remember that office as if it was yesterday, I can feel it in my fingertips, the filing cabinets, and the dynamics and meeting the boss in the lift one day. And, you know, and actually, I feel fantastically emotionally attached to all the places I’ve been to as offices, and yet, my book is about saying we’re in a different era. Now, the truth is, comedy writers created, they always find a way of capturing the zeitgeist. One of the phases of work I refer to is a period of time I think happened between about 1977 and 2006. I call it the mezzanine after the Nicholson Baker novel, the mezzanine, which of its day was set in the workplace then, which was an enormous office and it’s really set on an escalator. So I think creative people are going to find another

James Taylor 9:36
fine, big we’re gonna have some new stages to work from one of the quotes you have in the book, I think it’s from Ben Paige who is Ipsos MORI. I mean, you’ve got lots of great quotes from different thinkers and different experts. He said, we still need offices, we just don’t need them for work, which I thought was very interesting. So if an office is no longer required for work, what is the purpose of an office any longer physical office.

Julia Hobsbawm 10:01
This is a question. This is why I wrote the book. What I think is that technology stepped up to the plate and was stepping up to the plate, the pandemic just sort of crystallized a lot of things that were happening anyway. I mean, that’s partly what I try and do at the beginning of the book is explain the moment that we found ourselves in and it didn’t start with the pandemic clipped with the pandemic, which is sort of quite important. And the truth is that technology since about 2006, is the beginning of what I call the co-working is ushered in mobility acid in the possibility to be remote some of the time now, even though the pandemic made us all, you know, do this on the screen. The truth is, pre-pandemic, executives in offices build about the place at conferences all the time, and we’re in fact anywhere but the office and the office became this sort of citadel of presenteeism for people that didn’t have the power to leave, but also a status symbol, but it wasn’t actually being used as much as people eulogize it. Now, the reality is that office work, as in keyboard-based knowledge work, can now be done anywhere. And so the pandemic forced us, to know that and to work remotely. So coming back, why would we do what can be done elsewhere, we’re only going to do what can’t be done elsewhere, which is to connect with other people in real life, to exchange gossip, to read the room to, to catch a little bit of something or to collaborate in a particular way or to learn or to meet. And that’s what I think is going to be fundamentally different is that the need for places changing, so the place will change.

Effects On Creativity And Innovation

James Taylor 11:58
So I saw a quote the other day, I think it was from Andy Jassy, the new CEO of Amazon, obviously, Amazon has been one of the ones that have had a great two years, very successful two years. And he said We need to get people back into the office because innovation is suffering. We’re not riffing in the same way he was, I think, was a phrase he used. So what have you seen the effect of this time that we’ve been going through, and we’re just going to go with this idea of there’s no office as it relates to innovation and creativity? Oh, it seems like productivity stayed pretty good. And you in your book, you have lots of stats that, you know, different ways, but productivity stays pretty good. But what about innovation and creativity?

Julia Hobsbawm 12:38
Well, again, it’s a really important question. And the reality is, it’s slightly possible to argue both things, that it’s been disastrous for creativity, or that it’s been great for it. Certainly one of the people I interviewed for the book called Sanjay Nazirali is one of the most senior men in advertising in the world. He presides over the fastest-growing advertising agency in the world. And he described to me the use of technology during lockdowns, and how creative and innovative it was, I interviewed somebody called Josh Green, who was number three at we worked at one point. And he’s now set up something called groove, which is a sort of new collaborative platform where if you like, you do a little bit what I had to do at the beginning of this call, which is we were on the call, but I pressed mute for two minutes while I went off and got something you know, you’re present, but you’re sort of around doing other things. And then you come back in all these new ways of being present. And being also digital. I mean, I think what definitely matters is this word hybrid. I’m certainly not. First of all, when I say the nowhere office, I don’t mean or advocate, no office, just to put that out there. I just want to reimagine what we mean by work. And therefore what we mean by where we work. And when we work. The reality is, I think most people benefit from a hybrid way of working, which is that we come into that shared space, it could be a co-working space, or it could be an HQ or we work in other places our own place or on the move. And I think to be too prescriptive about that would be a mistake, because we’ve now got this mobility, absolutely at our fingertips. So I think that we need to be fantastically open-minded and realistic about it. And also to know when we’re being played by those who do have a vested interest. There are people that have a vested interest in having everybody back in one place. It’s not going to happen and be I don’t think it needs to.

new office look like?

James Taylor 14:54
So one that I’m guessing if you’re British land or a big property owner and Central London, or New York, you want people coming back into the office, if you’re the business of surrender, you want everyone back in the office again. One thing I’ve noticed where I think HSBC in Canary Wharf, they’ve taken the top five floors and have completely changed the floor plan for more collaborative work. You mentioned the book, the Bloomberg building, which was just before this stuff can started happening. And well, I wonder what would if so if you had your magic wand, and you could change perhaps the internals of some of these buildings now, what would that new that kind of new office look like? Or would it not look like that? Would you actually take that money and put it into multiple co-working spaces or give people the opportunity to improve the quality of their own home offices?

Julia Hobsbawm 15:45
Well, I think that the reality is that for some organizations and large organizations that are rich enough to totally revert their offices, they may succeed in certain situations in getting people to conform to what they do, which is to be fixed in some shape, or form. But the data does show that most people want flexibility, fluidity. So what you’re going to find, I think, is that corporate brands are always going to want HQ, they’re always going to want to refurbish because they’ve always endlessly refurbished their offices anyway. And they’re doing it again, refurbishment is absolutely huge at the moment lucky architects, interior designers, but actually in a kind of bigger point is, I don’t think that’s going to be what makes the difference. What makes the difference that I’m arguing in the book is that what the pandemic has done is connect people to their blended selves, who they are as workers who they are as people with lives, their values, we all feel much more mortal post-pandemic, we’ve all had a brush with death, or we know people who’ve died, or we’ve just felt that shiver of mortality. And we want to make life meaningful, and that movement we were edging towards, but pandemic, it was still going to the conferences and sit at your desk and be always on and get the promotion. And so those values are changing now. And so I suppose what I feel is yes, you can sort of rearranging the deck chairs, you can arrange the offices a bit differently, and so on so forth. But what actually matters is does the work we do have meaning? Is it well managed? Is it what is it fair? And I suppose in a way, the slightly harder-edged issues around work are what I want to focus on. Whereas I think the property companies, they’ll just want to do whatever they have to do to get people in to justify their rents.

James Taylor 17:49
I guess even me ask this question, I was going to put in work as one amorphous blob, where in the book, you talk about this idea of learners levers and leaders, and they have very different and you talk a little bit about how this has a generational side and Gen X and baby boomers. But obviously, it’s not quite as simple as that they’ve got different attitudes. So those learners levers and leaders, what does perfect look that that learn that first person I’m imagining as you when you were Penguin Books on the King’s Road?

Learners Levers And Leaders

Julia Hobsbawm 18:22
Yes, exactly. It’s the people entering the job market. So I suppose the first thing to say just as a sort of statement of the bleeding Orpheus, which I haven’t yet said is that, first of all, the majority of people in the world who work don’t work in offices, just to be clear, 3.3 billion people work and most of them still work in farms and factories. However, the office fulfills not only a back-end function to most of those farms and factories now in some shape or form. But 40% of the world’s workers in the developing economies are moving into the service sector and the office has become a byword for modern work. So I suppose I want to be clear that I’m not trying to ignore the fact that lots of people are not affected by these discussions, right? They don’t have agency and choice if they work in an ICU unit, in a school room, or in a number of different settings. They may not have any agency at all-around flexibility. However, what concerns me and has concerned me for a long time, as I’ve been writing about this stuff in with previous books is that the world of work has not been working well. It has been dysfunctional people have been miserable. We’ve seen this in epic, low productivity data in epic stress levels. I mean, 16 9 million working days a year have been lost. According to the Health and Safety Executive. In the UK. 60% of working days in the EU are attributed to stress. We’re talking about bad management Leadership at deadlines, all sorts of. So the book is trying to say, at an aerial view. Yeah, we’re nowhere where we needed to be before. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s a role for the officers a role for a time in place. But there’s also a role to reimagine all sorts of other things, like purpose, like our life stages to come back to your point, our identity, not in terms of, you know, whether I’m a person that likes to wear pink and all that sort of, you know, pure identity-related politics at the workplace. But more, yeah, I’m a 57-year-old woman, I’ve probably got different needs from a community of co-workers than somebody who is just starting out my 21-year-old self needed to watch the office politics. And so what you’re going to see I think, is different time zones for different kinds of workers in different sorts of ways. You may have the training month, where old older people are invited to come in and mentor younger people in that space, which has been refurbished with, you know, lovely new sofas, but I don’t think we’re ever going to see a return to the idea of a desk-based to time-based, atomized way of working in an office when you could just as well work somewhere else. It’s going to be all about occasions, special occasions. The Future Of Office Work 

James Taylor 21:35
I am hearing in Silicon Valley now where some of the tech companies who it felt like it was a little of a difference between if I was talking to a bank in New York or in London, they wanted everyone back we all the tech companies I deal with do it not everyone can stay can working from there, they was much more comfortable, although some of them actually are talking about almost doing retreats or mini-festivals to actually have people kind of come together. So it’s, and that is about the culture bit. That was the bit that the many of the HR, they sort of really struggled with this, how people coming into the organization, how do you talk about culture? How do you talk about purpose with that, and he just said we needed some way of doing that. And then the other part, which some businesses that I seem to have done very well when they had physical offices, is this idea of a third-place as an office as a place, which is or creating third places within an office context. So somewhere that isn’t your home? And isn’t your work as Symposium of sorts, a place where you’re the coffee shop was often that the coffee shop that was attached to the office where people could go or companies like IBM, they’ve got they’ve got a speakeasy. I know in their office in Boston, where people came together. So I guess there was that say that that places as being places inspiration is genius loci places can inspire workplaces can inspire if done well. And I’m wondering, even in writing this book, what are those places for yourself? In that you’ve you found to get inspiration sitting in your own home office? That was an inspiring place for you to work? Or did you have to go out into other places to work from galleries and other places?

The Future Of Office Work 

Julia Hobsbawm 23:12
Well, the first thing to say is that, like many people, it’s a mood-based thing. So actually, I have a place in the countryside in Wales, I have a room there that I feel very, you know, creatively spurred by, it’s my father’s old office in and I, you know, my father was a writer, and he was it. So that’s one place. I’ve done a lot of my best writing, I think, in the gym cafe. And in fact, I did a lot of the final proofing of this book. In a co-working space, in my local place, I live in London, there’s a sort of little village area called Crouch End and Soho House, big global brand I’ve been a founder member of for a long time, they had actually taken over the old KFC building, and created something called Soho studio. And really, if you’re a member of Soho House, you can go in and I found that a very good, good place. So if I had to make a prediction, I would say, first of all, co-working spaces are going to win out. And in fact, a lot of big companies already did invest in having pop up spaces, you could almost say that the end of the office was nigh pre-pandemic, because places like the Office group and we work, you would find that very large brands had already taken space within them, because they found you know that that attracted talent. Let’s just be clear that often when people talk about we encourage creativity what they really mean is we need to attract and retain and recruit talented people to work for us. And those people increasingly are becoming quite picky about the purpose and social and sustainability and ethical values of that organization. And so attracting them and keeping them is partly about being better, doing better work. And so I do feel slightly the all the sort of how can we make our offices nicer and is a distraction misses

James Taylor 25:25
the point that you mentioned your father there just as we finish up here. Your mother was a music teacher, my mom was still alive, which is fantastic.

Julia Hobsbawm 25:35
She was a recorded teacher, she was rather a pioneering recorder, everyone thinks they hate record, played the recorder. My mother was a really groundbreaking recorder teacher in inner city state schools where she would barter with she would bargain with the children often from very deprived backgrounds. And she’d say, I’ll teach you this piece of classical music if I also teach you how to play Match of the Day on your recorder. And it just she was fantastic at that. Yes, I’ve,

James Taylor 26:07
I’ve heard remembers now recorded lessons and having to put the recorder in the antiseptic at the end of

The Future Of Office Work With Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm 26:12
the lesson. But I can tell you that me and my recorders, but one and two by my Lainey Hobbs, former best sellers, Virgo photos,

James Taylor 26:19
genre recommendation and your father was very well known as academic I, for my ignorance, I actually didn’t know his work. And I was doing a little bit of research before we came on the call today about his writing on industrial capitalism and Marxism and all that, that fascinating topic. So I’m wondering, what would your father just think, thought about the stage we’re at and where we’re going at work?

Julia Hobsbawm 26:45
I don’t know if you can see it, maybe you can say yes, up here. That is the light green thing is his old vintage green Hermes typewriter on which he wrote a lot of his books. And I do a lot of reading in this chair, that he was interested in everything, and he got too old and too ill before he died in 2012, for me really to discuss much of this. I think he would have found it fascinating because I think this is the most important and exciting and pivotal moment in the history of work in 100 years. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I think that’s sort of as Ricky Gervais might say, in the office fact. So I think he’d be really interested in this moment. And i Maybe I was always a daddy’s girl. I miss him to talk to about it.

James Taylor 27:41
Well, we had a guest recently just talking about how the thing that you create affects what you create, and he was we were talking about in the virtual world and where you are affecting your creativity. So we were actually having a discussion about whether his next book, he was actually going to write an old-fashioned typewriter, just because it would move his hands in different ways of getting work. So maybe a future book you could be writing on your, your father’s old or typewriter.

Julia Hobsbawm 28:09
Maybe I mean, I worked for many years, was had the great privilege of working for Maya Angelou as her publicist when I was in my 20s, and she very famously used to write in hand on a yellow pad, even though there weren’t computers. By then. She would but her creativity, she felt very strongly had to flow directly from her pen. I certainly am a pen and paper person. I’m a bit of a Smythson addict. I like really good quality stationery. I certainly have to write in order to think and my husband and antiquarian bookseller gets fantastically cross with me because I have to sort of defeat books, I have to be the marginalia. I’m afraid I do. And I say to him, Well, don’t sell that book. Because it’s mine. It’s for my life. But no, I think. I think it’s an interesting point you raised I mean, no, I also tend to think as I write, so I like pie. But what I have done is spent an awful lot of my advances my meager advances, I’ve spent an awful lot of them at Memento printing crowd Gen because every time I would write some chapters, I would send them down or PDF to Brian and Elliot and have them spiral bound, covered in acetate, while I would read them so I could be the reader to see whether they read well. So it’s quiet, that’s lovely, quite Luddites.

James Taylor 29:40
Well, I know Mike, you mentioned my Angelou, she had that famous quote, which people might forget what you say, but they should never forget how you make them feel. And you’ve made me feel actually quite optimistic today about the future of work. So thank you, Julia, so much for coming to the show. The book, The nowhere office is out now we’ll put links so people get their copy of the book. Thank you if they want to learn more about your other work I mentioned obviously some of the organizations that you’re involved in where’s the best place to go and do and well information

The Nowhere Office by Julia Hobsbawm | PublicAffairs

Julia Hobsbawm 30:08
they can go to the nowhere of the nowhere And then everything can sort of link to the other stuff I do in the podcast, ‘The Nowhere Office’ if they’re interested. Well,

James Taylor 30:18
Julie Halston. Thank you so much for being a guest today on the Super creativity podcast.

Julia Hobsbawm 30:23
Thank you very much.

James Taylor 30:25
You could subscribe to the super creativity podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast while you’re there. Please leave us a review. I would really, really appreciate it. I’m James Taylor and European listening to the super creativity podcast.

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