Earlier this month, a technology entrepreneur named Chris Herd posted a thread on Twitter. “I spoke to 10 x Billion $ companies who canceled return to the office due to the delta variant,” he began. “A few predictions on what else is going to happen.” His first salvo was titled “Office Death,” and claimed that “by the time people can return to the office a lot of companies will no longer have space to return to.” His next prediction was about “City Flight.” He stated that workers would continue to flee cities and would quit if their employers forced them back into urban offices. The thread continued with sixteen more tweets.
In 2018, Herd, who is thirty-one, started a financial-technology company based in northern Scotland. He soon realized the difficulty of attracting talent to his location, and organized his business to operate without a physical headquarters. Impressed by the benefits of his office-free operation, Herd pivoted into a new company, Firstbase, which supports a remote-work infrastructure. In 2019, he began tweeting strident objections to office work, with loud claims about the superiority of alternatives. When the pandemic hit, the audience interested in these discussions exploded in size. In early 2020, Herd posted a long thread of predictions about remote work’s rise during the next decade, and it hit a nerve in a way that his earlier tweets had not. His follower count grew from about a thousand to over forty-five thousand, and his threads became must-reads for anyone who closely followed these topics. Many commentators have been discussing the need for a more flexible approach to when and where work happens in a post-pandemic world. Herd, it turns out, is proposing something altogether more radical.
When knowledge work became a major economic sector in the twentieth century, the necessity to have employees work together around stationary machinery, as in the classic factory model, was curtailed. There remained, however, secondary forces that preserved co-location. Knowledge work requires collaboration and access to information, both of which are conveniently served when individuals are physically near shared conference rooms and filing cabinets. Meanwhile, during this point of transition, companies had already become familiar with the industrial idea of managers’ monitoring employees as they toiled in the same space, going so far as to adapt the standardized nine-to-five work shift into the white-collar world. The result was the rise of what we might call the office-as-factory model: the idea that, whether the work is physical or cognitive, we should gather in the same building to work together under close supervision during the same hours.