We can now comfortably call time on the idea of a full return to the office, but what comes next is still up for grabs.
Flexible work has proven to be one of a handful of pandemic trends that have not seen a reversion to the pre-2020 norm.
Office occupancy in major US metro areas has been flat at around 50% since the beginning of this year.
So Elvis has left the (office) building, and for good.
Till now, the debate has pitched working from home and working in the office against each other. But home - for most knowledge workers, was simply the first, easiest (and often only legal) place to work during the pandemic. A found object, nothing more.
And once the link between work and location has been broken, why constrain yourself to only two locations?
For the past century and a bit, your average knowledge worker used a single, generalised, workspace (away from home), linked to their role. We called these offices.
They were designed for lots of people within a company to gather easily, and to be quite good at everything the people in that group might want to do on a specific day.
What those offices definitely weren’t designed to do was to be great places to do one specific type of task.
With the technology - and norms - of the 20th century creating those kind of spaces wouldn’t have made sense.
But now the link between work and location has been broken.
You can instead unbundle the office, and take your pick from a range of different working locations that suit whatever task you are working on next. Idea generation. Team collaboration. Content production. Churning through routine tasks.
Whatever you’re doing, there’ll be a place better suited to your needs than a legacy-style office.
The idea of choosing your workplace to suit your task might seem new, but it’s really a very old one. As Marc Andreesen put it whilst appearing on Econtalk:
“There was no office of the Roman Empire. There was no office building. They didn't go to work. They ran the world. They did it from their homes, and they did it by walking around the street, and they did it by travelling, and they did it in the Senate; but there was no office and so forth and so on.”
The concept of an office is simply a function of the technology at the time.
During the industrial revolution it made more sense to bring production away from the home (on what that looked like in practice, read this), and together into a factory. Bundle.
In the 20th century, without instantaneous group communication and the rise of the mass corporation, it made sense to gather everybody together into an office. Bundle again.
As technology changes, so does the link between work and location (for more on this, read the brilliant Nowhere Office by Julia Hobsbawm).
That’s not to say that during the factory/office era you couldn’t unbundle. It was just something that only the most successful people did. You get big enough, your work travelled with you.
Think Succession. Work happens everywhere in that show. Weddings. Conferences. Parties. Planes. Find a room, and away they go.
The rest of us all casually do it now and again, as well. Can’t figure out an idea? Go for a walk. Need to churn through something boring? Go to a coffee shop. Want a proper catch-up? Turn it into a lunch.
It’s just never been formalised.
The best companies have already seen this coming, and are already expanding the number of locations they let their employees work.
Writers, artists and entrepreneurs have been ahead of the curve on this for centuries: tailoring their locations to wherever they were in the creative process.
Now the most innovative companies are catching up, asking the question: how good was the office really? And can we find something better for whatever the task is at hand.
We can see this desire already in the nascent trend of team and company offsites -- trying to combine the benefits of remote-first with in-person collaboration.
Soon, more and more companies will realise that an unbundled office means more productive teams, and a creative edge - an advantage that will become even more apparent as we get better at measuring productivity.
And as existing data (which is usually based on things like data-entry and cold-calling) is enhanced by new and richer studies that better reflect the life of your average knowledge worker, companies will respond accordingly.
The cycle will accelerate. More and more options beyond the home and office will emerge, tailor made-for different types of work.
And in pursuit of an ever better high, companies will shift to edgier and edgier strategies to try and unlock deeper levels of focus, productivity, and human collaboration
Things are going to get weird.
These options will go far beyond small-talk at the water cooler.
Access to isolated homes with best in class workspaces for individual contributors to go away and do deep work.
Small teams meeting up every six weeks in repurposed chalets and farmhouses.
We might even see companies owning and developing their own hotel resorts for offsites and meetups (pmarca again).
This unbundling will also be supercharged by increases in AI and automation that mean most of the manual, low-energy tasks legacy-offices are well suited for will die out, alongside ever improving technology that makes it easier to work well from anywhere (VR, I’m looking at you).
As time passes the change will speed up as younger companies (93% of US companies founded after 2011 offer work location flexibility) displace the old, whilst encouraged by their employees (the ability to work away from the office is now valued at an equivalent of a 8% pay rise, and one recent RCT found the ability to work flexibly reduced quit rates by 35%).
This will also improve working from home. At the moment your average home is set-up for play, not work, compared to, say, your average Roman home, which was designed to do both.
As time passes, this will change, with the rise of dual-use homes that are just as good for working in as living in: what Alvin Toffler described as “electronic cottages” back in the 1980s.
But there’ll be moments where you’ll still want to step away from your home office and pick the best location for the task at hand.
This is where we come in. If it involves work, and it’s not at home, or in a legacy office, eventually, we want it to be us.
If you take a second - maybe by imagining a day in the life of Don Draper in the 1970s - you can figure out quite quickly the tasks contained in the bundled office.
Creative and strategic thinking (Don lying on his sofa in his private office). Teams meeting to plan and collaborate (Don, Roger, Lane and Bert deciding to break away from Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe). Pitching to clients (too many examples to mention). Churning through routine tasks (Admittedly, not a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce speciality).
We’ve picked our first task - creative and strategic thinking - and are starting there.
Whether it’s a thing that needs to be built, or a key decision to be made - our first Ashores provide everything our users need to get away and focus on their most important work.
But this is just the first in many different types of space we want to provide to companies, teams, and employees, as they navigate the journey from a bundled to an unbundled office.
We’ll focus on this and make the experience we provide great. Thoughtful design. Peaceful locations. Insane attention to detail.
And then pick the next task to unbundle. Team collaboration. Client visits. Content production. Company gatherings. Choose another one. And another one.
Some - the ones we think can be done best online (ad hoc chats, 121s etc) we’ll leave to the internet (and VR), but if we think place matters to the task at hand, we’ll give it a go.
If we get it right, we’ll be able to play our part in the unbundling of the office.
And hopefully, make work feel like play.