The Nowhere Office

I reviewed Julia Hobsbawm’s The Nowhere Office and Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout for the TLS in February:

Change, writes Julia Hobsbawm, happens “slowly and then all of a sudden completely”. What Hobsbawm calls the “Nowhere Office” – the hybrid workspace that floats between work and home – may seem like Covid’s gift to the world but it was long in the making. For her it is the culmination of trends that have been emerging since the 1980s, when office hours stopped being strictly nine-to-five and the search for an elusive work–life balance began. The pandemic “broke the last threads holding the embedded customs and practices together”.

The Nowhere Office is buoyant about this placeless workspace. Offices, Hobsbawm predicts, will no longer be run by a creed of unthinking presenteeism and will become places we visit for networking, collaboration and community-building. The rest of the work will be done at home or on the move. We will happily cut across different time zones, accessing our files anywhere via digital clouds and dividing up work across a seven-day week, carving out “air pockets of free time” rather than a two-day weekend. The main divide will be between the “hybrid haves” and the “hybrid have nots” – those who are able to move seamlessly between online and offline and those who are not.

Hobsbawm wants to “put the human back in the corporate machine”, and her instincts are all good. She understands that working from home can mean loneliness, isolation and the bleeding of work into our personal lives. And she concedes that “despite the apparent flexibility and freedoms, many inequalities remain and too many people still have to work too hard and too long”. But what if the apparent flexibility and freedoms are the problem? What if the nowhereness of work means that work ends up being everywhere, and we can never disengage from its demands? For Hobsbawm the solution is to give employees more choice and negotiate their consent. They must be disciplined in separating work from life, and their bosses must trust them to work unsupervised. “It will be obvious if people are working well”, she writes sunnily, announcing the end of “the age of being violently busy”.

The book is interspersed with interviews with practitioners and proponents of the Nowhere Office. Most of them are business leaders: chief strategy officers, brand presidents, digital entrepreneurs, investors. Their insights are worth having, even if Hobsbawm’s mimicry of their corporate-speak about “win-win models” and “siloed thinking” does little for her prose style. But one wonders if those lower down the corporate hierarchy might have a less heady take on the Nowhere Office.

According to Hobsbawm, theses changes are unstoppable. The future is set fair and all we can do is catch up. “The desk is all but over as a built-in feature of office life”, she says. “Sofas, small theatres, spaces to convene and converse in will be ‘in’.” Her brisk verdicts on the new reality reminded me of that much-repeated formula online, declaring that some new phenomenon “is a thing now”. But why is it a thing, and should it be a thing? The future is neither uniform nor inevitable. It feels too soon to make bold calls, before the pandemic is even over, about what the workplace of the future will look like.

Hobsbawm summarily dismisses critics such as Josh Cohen, David Graeber and Sarah Jaffe as part of “an emergent purist camp” which holds that “work represents a failure of society, certainly of capitalism, and that work is essentially not an opportunity but a threat”. But these critics do not say that work is “pointless”, as she claims, only that a turbo-capitalist conception of work makes excessive and toxic demands on us. Their writing deserves to be engaged with rather than caricatured.

Hobsbawm would probably put Jonathan Malesic in the purist camp. But his acutely felt investigation of work burnout as an “ailment of the soul” makes his the more thought-provoking and substantial of these two books. Malesic is a recovering academic, a former professor of theology at a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. Like many academics he began his career with unsustainably high ideals, believing he was “a citizen in the republic of letters”. He discovered that much of it was just a job, with unrewarding tasks, soul-sapping hassle, pointless politicking and fears of redundancy. His students, most of whom were studying theology as a core requirement, did not share his enthusiasms and spent his classes looking blank-faced and bored. Soon he was lying in bed for hours when he should have been working, repeatedly watching the video of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush song “Don’t give up” and self-medicating with ice cream and beer. After eleven years he gave up the tenure-track position he had worked so hard for. Alongside the sense of failure, he felt intense guilt that he had come to hate such a coveted and well-rewarded job.

As Malesic admits, burnout is something of a buzzword, “an often-empty signifier onto which we can project virtually any agenda”. Our vague definitions of it, and the lack of consensus on how to diagnose and measure it, raises the question of how much we really want to eradicate it. Diagnosing oneself with burnout can, after all, be self- flattering. To be burned out is to be a modern, a victim of the age, a martyr to one’s own high ideals. Burnout’s historical antecedents, the now-forgotten soul sicknesses of acedia, melancholia and neurasthenia, were similar sources of both pride and shame.

Malesic defines burnout usefully as “the experience of being pulled between expectation and reality at work”. We burn out not just because we are exhausted but because our hearts are broken. Our love for work, which we saw as the path to social status and spiritual flourishing, went unrequited. Even in the good times, work could not deliver all we asked of it, and these are not the good times. Aided by market deregulation, employers now see workers as a fixed cost to be reduced. Outsourcing, zero-hours and precarious work have expanded, while more hours are demanded of everyone. The funky offices of tech start-ups, with their games rooms and sleeping pods, are, Malesic writes, “designed to keep you at work forever”. The life hacks touted as burnout antidotes – mindfulness, getting more sleep, working smarter – are superstitions, “individual, symbolic actions that are disconnected from burnout’s real causes”.

Malesic visits an artisan pottery studio in Minnesota, a Dallas nonprofit doing anti-poverty work and several Benedictine monasteries, and spends time among artists with disabilities who cannot find paid work but who form richly supportive creative communities. He learns that work need not be the lodestar of our lives. To heal our burnout, we need to lower our expectations. Malesic now teaches writing part-time at a Dallas university, just one or two classes per semester. He no longer expects the life of the mind to be soul-nourishing and is a better and more patient teacher for it.

We need to see work as, well, work. But this does not mean that it should cease to matter. Malesic cites the French phrase “un travail de bénédictin”– a Benedictine labour – to describe a project that demands quiet, steady effort over a long time to bring it to fruition. This kind of work has little value in a world of annual pay reviews and key performance indicators. But a richly satisfying Benedictine labour can cure us of that self-lacerating cycle of looming deadlines and short-term goals that ultimately benefits only our paymasters.

These very different books have one perspective in common: they both see the pandemic as a chance for reflection and change. “Right now, we have a rare opportunity to rewrite our cultural expectations of work”, Jonathan Malesic writes, “and I hope we will.” So do I.

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