Are we facing the death of the office, the end of the nine-to-five and an imminent robot takeover? ICON’s expert panel considers the future of the daily grind in our new podcast
Reams of articles, books and screeds have been written about the world of work. From scholastic analysis to the genesis of postmodern situational comedy, as with The Office, work has fascinated and infuriated in equal measure. No one, however, nailed it with such precision as Dolly Parton in her anthem for the clerical masses, Nine-to-Five. In part, a rallying cry to her exploited sisters to break free from the patriarchy (though Dolly herself would probably shy away from strident third-wave feminism), the song captured something of the drudgery of the eight-hour grindstone. Though it may not always feel like it, the eight-hour day is the result of steadily improving workers’ rights from around the turn of the last century. But as we progress headlong into the 21st century, is it still the best way to organise our working lives?
No, says London-based designer Pernilla Ohrstedt, whose studio is at the forefront of research into workplace design. ‘MIT did a study in the 1950s, which examined the four-hour working day. They found that beyond a 20-hour working week productivity declined until the point where you reached 70-80 hours a week.’ History, argues Ohrstedt, shows us that creativity is rarely harnessed within the quotidian of daylight hours. ‘If you look at highly productive creative people, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Darwin, they would only spend a short amount of time working on key tasks. The rest they spent talking to people, getting themselves into the right frame of mind.’
It is fair to ask what a customer services officer in Bedford has in common with Darwin, but Ohrstedt’s point is instructive when you consider the context. Work, especially mundane repetitive work, is increasingly under threat from automation. You need only visit a local high street bank, so often all but deserted to see the corrosive effects of smartphone banking on staff headcount.
But is that the full picture? It depends who you listen to. Hyperbolic reporting from the mainstream media has obscured the reality. In the absence of definitive answers as to what the future might hold, automation has become something akin to the watery alien from The Abyss – an unquantifiable force that may or may not be hostile. What holds true for the moment is that creativity, lateral thinking, whatever you call it, remains the one advantage we hold over the machines. And, as Google, Facebook, and Apple grasped before everyone else, financial success and creativity are inextricably linked. Though each company assumes different forms, their physical environments are all geared with that in mind.
Rohan Silva, the co-founder of workplace-cum-cultural hub Second Home, agrees. Second Home, which he began with business partner Sam Alderton, is predicated on the idea that if you give people a well-designed, eudaemonic space that fosters collaboration, then creative ideas naturally follow. ‘The good news is that new jobs are being created all the time. And the high-value jobs that are resilient to automation all seem to have one thing in common, which is they involve creativity. That is good news for humans because we are naturally pretty good at creative tasks and the robots are useless at them.’
The case of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas is illustrative. In search of a method to improve its treatment plans and ability to identify certain forms of cancer, the institution spent large sums on a cognitive system, which it ultimately failed to take to a real-life patient. In parallel, the administration department were using a similar system to help visiting families of patients find places to stay and eat, and assess insurance claims. ‘You had this sophisticated software applied to very technical pieces of work, which it was not capable of doing,’ explains journalist and critic Tim Abrahams. ‘In the end, it was humans that had the ability to make difficult clinical decisions while the software was brilliant at the administration. This is where technology is helpful. It is not that lawyers are going to be replaced by robots.’
Often with workplace design, the rhetoric outpaces the reality and what we are presented with is actually reheated old ideas rather than radical new ones, explains Ohrstedt, whose research into the history of work unites architecture and design with technological and societal shifts. ‘If you look at the Pullman building in Chicago, it was conceived as a city in itself. Today, companies like Google and Amazon are both mimicking cities or, as with Amazon in Los Angeles, attempting to revive downtown areas.’
Ohrstedt cautions against the encroachment of private companies on public space in the city, what she calls the dark side of Google’s position as urban catalyst, but offers instead an alternative future that relies on more old-fashioned typologies. ‘It is interesting to look at civic buildings. Libraries are trying to renew themselves and we see many examples of the library becoming a shared workspace. You do not need to subscribe to a membership, and you have access to knowledge. They are open to everyone and not just a privileged few.’
This idea undoubtedly resonates with anyone concerned at the steady eradication of what is a civilising element of any urban space, but given the extent of cuts facing the public sector, it is perhaps optimistic. In an echo of the coffee shop culture that sprang up in Regency London, it is Starbucks and Costa that seem best placed to provide an informal workspace. For Abrahams, the formalisation of this ad hoc arrangement raises further questions: ‘How far away are we from a Starbucks at a service station on a ring road 30 miles outside London with a space given for people to work in for four or five hours?’
Technology was supposed to obliterate distance, and to some extent it has. As long as you have an internet connection, then you can work anywhere. But, as Silva points out, innovation is strongly correlated with dense urban areas, which is why the need for an office building will never go away. ‘Clustering and physical proximity matter more than ever,’ he says. In the short term, he is probably correct, but the kind of spaces we are currently delivering are, thanks to an asphyxiating combination of conservative planning rules and short-term thinking on the part of developers, bland and uninspiring.
‘If you look at the built environment, it is not keeping up with the pace of change, which means it is harder than it should be to grow a company. Planning is deeply flawed. It is the only piece of post-war thinking that hasn’t yet been properly reformed.’ There are things that we could be doing to make working life better, Silva argues, pointing to his own company’s inclusion of childcare facilities in the latest incarnation of Second Home. People need to start thinking more long-term to give innovation the space to happen, says Silva, who reserves 10-15% of space at Second Home to not-for-profit organisations. ‘It doesn’t make sense on a spreadsheet, but we have to do things that are not in our short-term material interest but are for the greater good.’