Return to the office or turn digital nomad? If only ordinary workers had that choice

·4 min read

Is the office dead? Or have rumours of its death been greatly exaggerated? The pandemic has already spawned a million think pieces on the subject. Now that Boris Johnson has dropped work-from-home guidance and some big companies are starting to tell staff to come back in, brace yourself for a gazillion more.

If you don’t have time to navigate the debate, here’s a handy summary: the future of work looks very different depending on who you ask. People who have spent the pandemic Zooming from spacious holiday homes, and those with a financial stake in remote work, seem to be adamant that the days of trudging to an office are over. People with a financial stake in commercial real estate and ancillary industries, meanwhile, have been working overtime extolling the virtues of in-person work.

One big proponent of the “offices are for ever” crowd is an architect called Clive Wilkinson who (this will shock you) designs office spaces. Not just any office spaces, mind you: Wilkinson is the guy responsible for Google’s fancy headquarters in California. He’s got some regrets about the Googleplex now: in a recent interview with NPR, Wilkinson admitted that too many on-site perks can be “dangerous” because employees never have any reason to leave the office. Still, Wilkinson said the office may need to be reimagined but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. “The office is the fermenting ground for people growing into successful adults,” he opined. “How would that ever be dead?” I’m not going to answer that. I’m just going to say his thoughts on the matter may have fermented a little too long.

Meanwhile, on the other extreme of the debate, is Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and a man who clearly hasn’t spent the last two years quietly weeping as he tries to get work done while living in a one-bedroom flat with a very loud baby, a hyperactive dog and another adult who is also trying to get work done. (I’m not projecting here; not projecting at all.) Last week Chesky announced that he will be working remotely as he hops from Airbnb to Airbnb around the world. Why? Well, because he’s a billionaire and he can. And also, as he explained on Twitter, because he reckons this is the future: remote work has “untethered many people (obviously not everyone, but a large chunk) from the need to be in an office every day.” Per Chesky, that means “more people will start living abroad … and [becoming] digital nomads”. Which, of course, is great news for Airbnb.

Airbnb-hopping as you work from the beach sounds lovely, right? But let’s remember that the people who can do this may be a lucrative customer base for Airbnb but can’t, by any means, be described as a “large chunk” of the population. It’s important to stress that point because it can be easy for those of us who have been lucky enough to work remotely during the pandemic to overestimate how many people have had the same opportunity. Last September, the Atlantic commissioned a poll asking Americans to estimate how many people had worked from home during the pandemic. Seventy-three per cent of the respondents who had worked remotely guessed at least half of Americans had done the same. In reality, the number of Americans who worked remotely was only 35% at its highest point (May 2020). Only 13.4% were working from home by the end of last summer. The numbers seem to be higher in Britain (47% of people worked from home in April 2020) but we’re still not talking about an overwhelming majority here.

And this, really, is the key issue when it comes to the whole remote v in-person work conversation. Far too much airtime is given to the experiences of a relatively small proportion of the population; every other type of worker seems to be invisible. There may be a lot of grand ideas about the “future of work” floating around, but there’s nothing futuristic about fixating on how to improve the lives of white-collar workers while ignoring everyone else. That’s just business as usual.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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