Why unlearning familiar rituals holds key to a smarter workplace.
To mark the launch of their new book Unworking, WORKTECH founders Philip Ross and Jeremy Myerson reflect on the need to jettison old ideas about the office and think more radically about the future.
In the annals of the modern workplace, the year 2022 already looks set to secure a special place.
This year we have seen millions of workers around the world mandated back to the office by their employers after the global pandemic but resist doing so in huge numbers. In the UK, senior government ministers have left unsubtle calling cards on the desks of work-at-home civil servants, demanding they return to Whitehall as soon as possible.
Companies have invested heavily in all types of smart technology, including VR headsets, video suites, and even the metaverse, as they try to find ways to enable a remote workforce to collaborate more effectively in a ‘hybrid’ model.
Employers have started paying unprecedented attention to the mental well-being of their workers, not just their physical safety. And designers have started remodeling office space with a focus on hospitality, socializing, and the ‘customer’ experience.
"Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross eloquently lay out the history of work and how the clues of the past become the keys to the future."
A different picture
Jump back exactly 100 years, and the picture was very different. The early 1920s were the gold rush years for the modern office as tall buildings sprung up amid rapid urbanization and the rise of a set of dominant industrial technologies, including the telephone, writer, elevator, and electric light. These vast work towers were staffed by identikit armies of office clerks, overwhelmingly white, male, and able-bodied, a far cry from today’s more diverse workforces.
To experience office life in 1922 was to be part of a machine – to be a cog in a mechanical system with the office building as the fixed, immovable point in this time-and-motion universe. To experience office life in 2022 is to spend a large chunk of the week avoiding it altogether, working at home instead or in a café or coworking lounge, using a new dominant set of digital technologies to contribute and communicate.
"The transition from the traditional, fixed hierarchies of working to circular design methodology and application, and how at the center of those work and human circles in the need for connectivity, collaboration, and community - all supported by human centric programming."
Unraveling how we work
How we went from the stern, scientifically managed office, derived from the industrial factory floor and firmly rooted in time and space, to the current model of working anyhow, anytime and anywhere is the subject of our new book, Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
We have reached such a different place in the evolution of the modern office – physically, conceptually, and philosophically – that a new way of thinking is required to grasp the scale of the transition currently underway.
In the book, Myerson and Ross describe the term ‘unworking’ as unraveling how we work, unbundling the assumptions that are baked into the modern office, and unlearning the habits, management styles, and workplace cultures that have traditionally defined our behavior at work. The purpose of ‘unworking’ is to reimagine what the future workplace could be like, but this is no easy task.
Taylorist ideas about office design, organization and productivity are deeply ingrained – the effect of a century of management indoctrination, a spell only broken by the public health crisis of the pandemic which put the office itself out of bounds just long enough for a total rethink to get underway.
Even the current binary debate about hybrid working – which is better, office or home? – clings to the past. It speaks to an old model of office boundaries when changing social attitudes and technological innovations suggest a boundaryless workplace.
"A recommended read for anyone interested or engaged in the reinvention and design of the future of work."
A fitting metaphor
The front cover of Unworking has a graphic evoking a skyline of office towers passing down through a shredder and emerging as software code. This is a fitting metaphor for the office becoming a software solution in the 21st century as opposed to being all about physical hardware and place, a 20th-century obsession.
The book charts the evolution of the office from the age of efficiency through the social democratic ideals of the community-based workplace to the rise of the network. It is centrally preoccupied with what comes next as our organizations, experiences, spaces, technologies, design processes, and even our cities are subject to radical change.
"The cover evokes a skyline of office towers passing through a shredder to emerge as software code…"
No longer the all-powerful setting for work, Unworking explores how the modern office is morphing into something else: Myerson and Ross predict it will become more sentient, social, elastic, and personalized, a magnetizing response to people having a choice about whether or not to come to the office whereas before there was simply no alternative.
Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office by Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross was published on 31st August 2022 by Reaktion Books, and distributed in the US by the University of Chicago Press.
About the Authors
Jeremy Myerson is a leading international academic researcher, author, and activist in people-centered design and innovation based in London. He holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art, and he joined Unwired in October 2015 to set up The WORKTECH Academy, a global knowledge network looking at the future of work.
Philip Ross is an author, advisor, speaker, futurist, and commentator on the new world of work. With a focus on people and behaviors, business outcomes, and trends. Specializing in predicting the impact of digital disruption and new technology on the way we work, shop, learn, live and consume leisure.
4xi Global Consulting & Solutions is a team of talented leaders from both the client-side and service provider side, impacting the Human Experience (HX) for people at work, in education, rest, and at leisure.
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