I try to be open-minded about WFH

I’ve been dipping into Julia Hobsbawm’s forthcoming book The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future, which is a very nicely written and upbeat assessment of the shift in white collar working habits as a result of the lockdowns.The book sees the pandemic-wrought changes as an opportunity for a healthier model of office work.

I’m not an unbiased commentator, having (a) long been able to work a day or two a week at home and (b) absolutely *loathed* work-from-home rules. It has been bad for my mental health, bad for the generation of ideas and energy, and made running a research team, and teaching, far harder. So I’m emotionally disinclined to agree either with the prediction that WFH will be the new norm or with the assessment that this will be a good thing. To wrap some logic around it, the force of agglomeration economies in knowledge-based activities has not reduced.

Still, lots of very smart people disagree so I’m trying to keep an open mind. My Productivity Institute colleague Cary Cooper is one, and he and I have debated this (on Zoom….). Nick Bloom at Stanford is another, with some super-impressive research. And now Julia’s book. I don’t want her to be right, but perhaps she is, at least about office workers. After all,  many jobs have no WFH option.

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What does work look like?

I’m gliding into holiday reading, and have devoured a fine, albeit rather depressing, novel, Jon McGregor’s

. Now I’m well into the introductory sections of 
by T.J.Clark and Anne Wagner, the catalogue of the recent, fine Tate exhibition they curated. It’s a brilliant essay – I’m a Lowry fan being from those parts.

They point out that: “England – we constantly shift between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ in this book, and always on purpose – has been by and large so determined to evade, in representation, the dull catastrophe of its post-Imperial, post-Industrial-Revolution condition. Lowry does not.”

[amazon_image id=”1849761221″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life[/amazon_image]

This reminded me an essay by Hilary Mantel I read years ago, about the extremely narrow construction of English identity, in terms of stately homes, rolling green hills, cricket on the village green, CofE church socials run by Miss Marple, etc. Even Orwell (famously) caricatured it this way. What hope for a northern (English), working class, female of Irish Catholic descent, like her, to feel a sense of national identity, asked Mantel. (The other nations of the UK are different, of course.) I can’t track the exact quotation down now – I’d thought it was in her excellent memoir

, but can’t find it this morning.

The other aspect of modern life Lowry captures is of course work, work in the mills. Until around a decade ago there was very little English fiction about work. David Lodge’s 

stood out as a bit of an exception. This was a great contrast with the days of
,
and their peers, writing about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on work and other aspects of life. I think this is changing now, and there is some fiction about post-Internet working life (nominations for good examples, please).

[amazon_image id=”0099554186″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Nice Work[/amazon_image]

However, visual representations of modern working life seem rarer – I can’t think of any. Cotton mills and assembly lines are iconic. But rows of people tapping away at terminals? Why is it so hard to visualise modern work?

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