For those of you who have opened this week’s blog in the hope of reading about the show created by the genius that is Ricky Gervais, please accept my apologies. It’s only partly about that.
When The Office first hit British TV screens back in 2001, expectations were fairly low. Test audiences had given it the second worst score ever (for context, women's lawn bowls was first) and during its first season, ratings were disappointing.
That didn’t last long. Episode one of the second season was watched by a live TV audience of 5 million viewers. It went on to sell over 143,000 DVD’s (remember those) in its first week, making it the fastest selling title in BBC history.
It also spawned 10 international versions, including a US series that ran for nine seasons. Despite that ending in eight years ago, in 2020 it was the most streamed show in the US.
If you haven’t seen it, the premise is fairly simple. A sitcom, filmed like a documentary, that follows the day-to-day lives of office employees in the Slough branch of the fictional paper company, Wernham Hogg.
Sounds boring, doesn't it? Well, that was the point. Here’s co-creator Stephen Merchant;
"We had this discussion with a colour-correcting guy about whether we could drain as much of the colour out of the footage as possible. We wanted it to look like a documentary that had sort of been forgotten about and was sitting on a shelf at the BBC."
It was designed to reflect an environment that the British public could relate to. Slough. The paper industry. A medium sized company with staff who don’t really care, and a boss desperately short of self awareness.
"I'm an educator, I'm a motivator of people, I excite their imaginations. It's like bloody Dead Poets Society out there sometimes" - David Brent
To watch the original British series of The Office through a post pandemic lens is to look back to an environment which most young people won’t even recognise, and for good reason.
Nearly 20 years ago, my first job in estate agency involved getting into the office early to hoover the floor and empty the bins. We had one computer with internet access, and drove company cars made by Skoda, available in two colours. Incinerated Orange or Sludge Green.
These ideas, and others like them, were the brainchild of my then manager, a former logistics officer in the British Army. Who surprisingly, wasn’t as fun as he sounds.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that the whole concept of the office is a relatively recent phenomenon. A post industrial revolution idea. To begin with, it was simply a small room next to a factory.
The blue collar workers were in the factory making the widgets. The white collar workers were in the office handling the sales, distribution, after care and the like.
And that was pretty effective for a reasonable period of time. Mostly when communication was difficult and slow because the only means by which it occurred were conversations with colleagues, landline telephones and letters.
It meant that working at home, or in fact anywhere apart from the office was either impossible, or inefficient. And efficiency (speed) is a big disruptor of established organisations. Which was brought sharply into focus by the adaptation of the internet.
So Encyclopedia Britannica gave way to Encarta which in turn gave way to Google. And now, instead of a factory printing books and an office administrating the sale of them, our kids ask a smart speaker inane questions over breakfast.
The office too, has changed. Technology has disintermediated so many processes that the spaces where we work are being forced to adapt.
Instead of bland, functional environments which put the organisation front and centre, developers are creating spaces which promote creativity, give individuals the chance to thrive and promote a mix of work and play.
It’s mirroring the way our society is evolving.
In a hyper connected world, the concern is no longer where we can work from, but the effects on health, both mental and physical, of being able to work all of the time.
And so the office will evolve from being a place of forced compliance to a place where we can choose to be, if we like.
Our effectiveness will be measured by outcomes, and not time spent in a specific location. Which seems to make more sense anyway.
Enabling us to work in environments which feel focused, collaborative and fun. Where older people can learn, and younger people can impart their knowledge to the previous generation. And sometimes, the other way round too.
Where we can create a delineation between work time and non-work time.
And if for whatever reason you feel like spending a day working at home in your pyjamas instead, well that’s fine as well.
Flexibility, choice and self determination. The future. Hopefully not just of the office.
Whilst the focus of these updates is usually sales market related, the shortage of available homes to buy is (amongst other factors) having a big impact on the rental market too.
There were 68% fewer properties to rent across the prime London postcodes last month compared with September 2020 (and 38% fewer than September 2019 levels).
At the same time, achieved rents have soared by 11.7%, the highest annual increase seen in a decade.
Things I’ve been inspired by this week
Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution is a five part series which you can watch on iPlayer.
Whatever your views on New Labour’s lasting legacy, it’s a fascinating insight into so many things. Amongst others, the cultural shift from Thatcherite Britain to Cool Britannia and the changing relationship between two friends and political powerhouses.
But most of all, it documents a shared obsession with challenging the view of an entire population towards a party that hadn’t won a general election for fifty years.
Adequately summed up by Blair’s 2006 speech to the Labour Party conference, which would be his last as PM.
“You know, they say that I hate this party and its traditions. Well I don’t. I love this party.
There’s only one tradition I ever hated. Losing.”