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Unworking summary

Jeremy Myerson & Philip Ross

The Reinvention of the Modern Office

3.8 (22 ratings)
19 mins

Brief summary

Unworking by Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross examines the changing nature of work and the impact of technology on our professional lives. It explores alternative approaches to work and provides insights on how to thrive in the digital age.

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    How did we get here?

    Before we look at the future of the office, let’s take a look at how we came to be where we are today.

    The modern office has undergone major shifts over the past century. Early twentieth-century offices were based on scientific management principles aimed at maximizing productivity above all else. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1904 Larkin Building epitomized this with its slogan “Intelligence, Enthusiasm, Control.” Workers faced close supervision on open floors with no private spaces. While output climbed, health, satisfaction, and creativity declined.

    By the late twentieth century, a new wave of “socially democratic” office design emerged, pioneered by Scandinavia's SAS Airlines. Its 1988 headquarters focused on empowerment, collaboration, and community. The spaces aimed to evoke a village functionality, rather than resembling an industrial machine. This challenged the obsession with top-down control and efficiency. But some hierarchies and imposed design concepts persisted from leadership. The office still didn’t fully meet diverse worker needs.

    In the twenty-first century, work patterns have become more fluid, decentralized, and technology-enabled. Offices now operate as nodes in networks spanning organizations, teams, and projects. Steve Jobs envisioned offices enabling spontaneous meetings, following the ethos that creativity comes from spontaneous interaction of people.

    When COVID-19 hit, it acted as one of the largest catalysts for change to our social concepts of the modern office. As workplaces shut down overnight, businesses and employees alike rushed to adapt to remote working and the technology that enabled it. Now, conversations that were once restricted to managers behind boardroom doors have become common for employees at all levels: What does the future of work look like, and how will the modern office adapt?

    While some organizations still cling to traditional command-and-control models resistant to change, others experiment with radical flexibility in when and where work happens. Flexible and remote work has rapidly become commonplace. When they are in the office itself, employees expect spaces tailored to their physical, mental, and social well-being. Lasting change requires participatory design, giving workers control over their own environment.

    Applying design intelligence and technology, the office must evolve beyond being a productivity machine. The future lies in human-centered workplaces promoting effectiveness, health, and well-being while adapting to emerging needs. Workers require autonomy, empowerment, and environments honoring both task needs and human values.

    The office has progressed through phases of scientific management, social democracy, and decentralized networks. Each evolution brought new insights, yet failed to fully deliver on human potential. As work evolves, leading organizations will need to reinvent the office experience based on trust in people, not process. 

    Let’s take a look at some of these evolutions, and how the office might evolve from here.

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    What is Unworking about?

    Unworking (2022) delves into the transformation of workspaces and the changing nature of work in the twenty-first century, driven by technological advancements and evolving societal values. The book examines the shift from traditional office settings to more flexible, people-centric environments. Through diverse case studies and insights, it underscores the need for adapting to a new work landscape where collaboration, creativity, and well-being take center stage.

    Unworking Review

    Unworking (2021) explores the future of work and how the traditional office setting is evolving. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Offers insights into the changing nature of work, providing a valuable understanding of the modern workplace and its challenges.
    • Examines the role of technology and flexible work arrangements, shedding light on the potential benefits and drawbacks for employees and organizations.
    • Explores innovative workplace design concepts, showing how the physical environment can influence productivity, collaboration, and well-being.

    Who should read Unworking?

    • Professionals exploring modern workplace design
    • Enthusiasts of technological impacts on work
    • CEOs, HR heads, or business leaders struggling to find the balance between office and remote-friendly workplaces

    About the Author

    Jeremy Myerson is a respected academic and writer, holding the position of Professor Emeritus at the Royal College of Art as well as the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design. He’s extensively explored design and innovation, and one of his notable books includes Designing a World for Everyone.

    Philip Ross is an expert on the future of work, a technology commentator, and CEO of UnWork.com, a consultancy exploring new ways of working. Together, they have provided thought leadership on the intersection of design, technology, and the evolution of the workplace. His other books with Jeremy Myerson include The Creative Office and 21st Century Office.

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    Unworking FAQs 

    What is the main message of Unworking?

    Unworking explores how the traditional notion of work is evolving and offers alternative ways of thinking about productivity.

    How long does it take to read Unworking?

    Read time varies. The Blinkist summary takes about 15 mins.

    Is Unworking a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Yes, Unworking is worth reading. It provides valuable insights into the changing nature of work and offers practical ideas for adapting to the future.

    Who is the author of Unworking?

    Jeremy Myerson & Philip Ross are the authors of Unworking.

    What to read after Unworking?

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