On the new era of work: a talk with Julia Hobsbawm, the author of ‘The Nowhere Office’

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Step into a world where the traditional office is a relic of the past, and remote work has become the norm. The symphony of clinking coffee mugs and buzzing photocopiers has given way to the quiet hum of Zoom calls and the occasional barking dog in the background. It's a world where the boundaries between work and life blur, and the office, once a physical space, now has transformed into a digital nowhere.

In this brave new world of work, Julia Hobsbawm stands out as a sage of the modern workplace. Her book, 'The Nowhere Office,' offers valuable insights on navigating this new way of working for leaders and employees.

‘The Nowhere Office’, a term coined by Julia Hobsbawm, reflects a shift in the modern workplace. It shows that today’s workforce can adapt and be productive without traditional office constraints. It promotes flexibility and efficiency while still valuing physical spaces for collaboration and growth.

Julia Hobsbawm is a British award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, Bloomberg commentator, and columnist about the future of work. The author of the acclaimed book ‘The Nowhere Office,’ she was also the founder of the US-led Workforce Institute and now co-hosts the popular podcast ‘The Nowhere Office.’

To mark the launch of NordLayer’s Global Remote Work Index 2023 tool for exploring the best countries for remote work, join us in a conversation with Julia Hobsbawm as we explore the heart of ‘The Nowhere Office.’ Here, the future of work unfolds, and the old rules don’t apply anymore.

At a glance: insights from this interview

  • Remote work & productivity: remote work balances between isolation and collaboration. For some, it's a choice for creativity; for others, it's essential due to necessities like child care.

  • Evolving workplace dynamics & trends: daily office routines feel outdated. The rise of ‘The Nowhere Office’ and hybrid models highlight changing dynamics.

  • Technology & future of work: technology's efficiency and scale are unparalleled. However, issues like privacy breaches and trust erosion can surface without ethical checks.

  • Leadership in a changing landscape: modern leaders should prioritize active listening. Decisions based only on shareholder demands or peer practices can become misaligned with ground realities.

Work engagement & well-being

NordLayer: How does remote work contribute to enhancing productivity and well-being? Can you also address the misconceptions surrounding well-being in the workplace?

Julia Hobsbawm: The topic of remote work is multifaceted, especially when discussing its impact on social connections and well-being. Critics of 'the Nowhere Office' concept often highlight social isolation and loneliness, arguing for the advantages of full-time in-office engagement.

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Remote work isn’t merely a case of isolation versus collaboration. Some individuals seek quiet, creative spaces away from office disturbances. Others have obligations like child care, which make remote work not just preferable but essential. Flexibility, or what I prefer to term as 'movement flexibility,' is more apt than 'hybrid' in describing this paradigm.

Well-being at work goes beyond the simplistic binaries. It encompasses what I label 'social health': how we connect with colleagues, build communities, and foster supportive systems. Physical and mental health rooted in nutrition, sleep, and other factors also play vital roles.

A pressing issue, often sidelined in discussions on workplace well-being, is the toxicity of certain environments. A toxic workplace is characterized by poor leadership, office politics, unmanageable deadlines, and inefficient systems.

Addressing these issues is vital instead of merely branding well-being initiatives as solutions without understanding their depth. In my view, the pandemic has highlighted people's profound commitment to their work. 

Around the globe, pride in one's job isn’t restricted to specific roles or hierarchies. From Japan's broad societal work ethic to individual aspirations, there's a universal yearning to perform excellently. ‘The Nowhere Office’ is a call for change, seeking to cultivate environments that nurture pride, passion, and exceptional performance.

NordLayer: In your Bloomberg column, trends like "quiet quitting," "great resignation," and "career cushioning" emerge. Could you provide more insight into these concepts in the context of evolving workplace dynamics?

Julia Hobsbawm: Historically, and research backs this, companies founded before the year 2000 often have leadership resistant to new workplace methodologies. There's a discernible pattern where such organizations, predominantly led by men from a certain age bracket, resist adapting to these shifts.

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Tools like Zoom showcased during the pandemic that profound connections can be made remotely. It's a testament to human adaptability that we can feel connected, even intimately, through digital mediums. Even professionals in psychotherapy have found virtual communication to be surprisingly effective.

The key lies in discerning when physical presence enhances productivity and when it doesn't. Take multinational companies, for instance. Their diverse geographical operations don't necessarily dilute company culture. There's a need to dispense with traditional benchmarks when determining the necessity of physical presence in offices.

However, it's essential to remember the power of in-person interactions. Just as diplomats highlight the importance of "smelling the room," and gatherings ranging from global conferences to cultural festivities emphasize the value of personal interaction, businesses should recognize the essence of shared experiences.

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The rigid expectation of daily office presence for the sake of visibility, water cooler conversations, or prolonged meetings seems outdated. The increasing acceptance ‘The Nowhere Office’ concept, with a trend toward hybrid models, underscores the shifting dynamics.

The widespread adoption of schedules where employees come in three days a week suggests that these ideas are gaining traction. I'm hopeful about this progressive change and the direction in which we're headed.

Technology & future of work

NordLayer: In a nutshell, how do you see technology shaping the future of work in terms of opportunities and challenges?

Julia Hobsbawm: I think we're moving generally into a hyper-surveillance culture. From the automation introduced by Henry Ford's assembly line to today's AI-driven applications, technological innovation is part and parcel of our evolution. However, the conundrum arises not from the technology itself but from its human applications and interpretations.

We're at a pivotal point in history where technology offers unprecedented efficiency, convenience, and scale opportunities. Yet, without ethical guidelines, it can be misused, leading to issues such as breaches of privacy and the degradation of trust in professional relationships.

The challenge is striking a balance between embracing these advancements and respecting the human elements of work – autonomy, trust, and dignity.

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We must recognize that while technology can provide tools to enhance our capabilities, the bonus lies in employing these tools ethically and humanely. It's not about resisting technological change but channeling it in a manner that respects and uplifts human dignity and well-being. Our choices, priorities, and values in this tech-driven era are the true challenge.

Leadership in a changing landscape

NordLayer: Finally, what qualities must leaders develop in the changing work landscape, and how should leadership evolve in remote and hybrid environments?

Julia Hobsbawm: At the heart of the evolving work landscape, leaders need to embrace the role of an active listener. Making decisions based purely on shareholders' demands, the practices of other companies, or unrealistic timelines can lead to strategies that are detached from the realities on the ground.

A discerning leader listens, synthesizes the information, and communicates horizontally and vertically within the organization. For instance, if feedback suggests a strategy will take longer due to post-pandemic employee lifestyle shifts, a leader acknowledges this and adjusts accordingly.

We are navigating a transitional period. While the past may have seemed more structured – everyone commuting and adhering to routine schedules – the current landscape is fluid. This transition has amplified our emotional intelligence as workers.

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For leaders, it's about fostering an environment of mutual learning and understanding among these varying generational viewpoints. While it's undeniable that we're in challenging and complex times, I remain cautiously optimistic. The path might be bumpy, but with adaptive leadership, better days lie ahead.

Thank you.

From zero to hero

If you have an office-based, hybrid, or even a 100% remote team – any way of working – have you considered making it more secure and fully enabled to achieve its real potential? Reach out to the NordLayer team and discover an easy and effective secure network access solution for your company.

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