After Offices: How Life and Work Will Change Forever (with Dror Poleg, Author of Rethinking Real Estate)

AI and remote work will change our world forever, says Dror Poleg, researcher and author. It will change cities, jobs, and
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
July 4, 2023
min read

In this week's newsletter, I'm very excited to share my interview with Dror Poleg, an author and speaker about the impact of technology on work and life, and one of our Top 55 Remote Work Thought Leaders 2023.

You can find this interview as part of the Future Work podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube.

Dorr, you wrote a book, “Rethinking Real Estate,” in 2019. You predicted much of what we see happening in the market now. You're authoring a new book called After Office. Can you tell our listeners what that's about? 

Sure! The world, particularly in developed countries and major cities in Asia, is designed around offices. 

Looking at our world like an alien, you’d see that offices are the most important thing for our civilization because we have these big office buildings in the center of our cities and countries. 

Offices dictate the design of our cities. They're designed for commuters, for people that are coming into work. The businesses around them are designed for people in an office 9 to 5.  

We even designed our schools to prepare us for work at the office: when we wake up, the schedule, the structure, the type of tasks we do, how we sit, and how we patiently follow instructions. That’s the kind of teaching they’re trying to instill in us. 

And then when we're too old to work and retire, we're also dependent on offices because we invested a lot of our pension fund money in office buildings that are supposed to give us very stable dividends based on stable rents – even though that may be changing. 

It wasn’t always like this. Before offices were the center of the universe, our factories were, and before that, our farms. And similarly, we had designed our lives around them. What my book is about is trying to think is what happens to the world once offices are no longer at the center.

So not when offices don't exist, because even factories and farms still exist and are still important, but they don't dominate our landscape and culture. What will our world look like when the same thing happens to offices? 

How do our cities, our schedules, and the structure of organizations change? How could the idea of a career change, what we do with our time, and how we plan for retirement and manage risk? What are all the implications? 

Incredible – something to look forward to. Some of your subscribers have already received some of the initial chapters; I highly recommend people to take the paid membership and get those chapters ahead of time and read along. 

In the many podcast episodes we've recorded, this is definitely the first time someone has mentioned aliens and how they will look at our world. So we're off to a good start. 

Dror, you mentioned that offices play a central part in our lives, and that may change. What are some of the changes that you foresee in the after-office world? 

We're already seeing that offices are becoming less important. More corporations are letting their people not come to the office or only two or three days a week. 

Even though it doesn't look like a dramatic change to us because the office is still there, or at least a lot of it is still there, suddenly people can start making different choices so they can live a little farther away or, in some cases much farther away.

So the structure of the city starts to change. In addition, people can start doing other things during at least two or three days of their week in how they plan their schedules. So the time they spend with their kids, the type of education they give their kids, the type of health care they consume, and the type of hobbies they take out.

For example, one of the funny things here in the US is that suddenly golf courses have become very popular during the week, which in the past would happen only during weekends. People are starting to take up all sorts of new activities very differently.

In turn, cities have to respond because now a lot of the businesses at the center of the city, which assumed a rush hour at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, and a very stable and predictable stream of people during work days, are also starting to change. 

They become much more like weekend-type businesses that cater to tourists or the people that show up occasionally. And the composition of those businesses is changing from people who fix and polish shoes and dry cleaning to other things that are not necessarily built around office workers. 

So we're starting to see this beginning. We can talk about it for hours, but this is the start.

And gradually, we'll see cities transform into places where people live rather than where people work. Of course, a lot of people already live in cities, but those cities are designed to prioritize the offices and the people who come into them. And we'll see a reversal of that, where cities will be prioritized as a place to live based on the assumption that people don't have to be there unless they choose to. 

They don't have a job or office to go to that forces them to live nearby or come in daily. The city will have to become more like a consumer product, something attractive enough to bring in people every day and offer experiences that only a real city can offer, which means a diversity of retail, culture, and walkability.

So the changes will be fundamental and go way beyond the offices. That's interesting. 

One of the things that I picked up from your writing was that if you don't have to be in the office and, therefore, you don't have to live in a city, you start to see people changing where they live. And that's very freeing because I think we are hostage to the city. This change in cities is another really interesting aspect of our future of work. 

Another thing you touched on is remote and our ability to spend a few days a week not in the office and working more along our own schedule. We've seen time and time again, the benefits are very clear. 

There is increased productivity, there's increased engagement, well-being goes up, and employee retention goes up, but somehow there are still some CEOs against it. We even saw the CEO of OpenAI very recently say that startups shouldn't offer remote work anymore because we can only collaborate in person.

Although ironically, in that very same article, he said that some of their best people live far away and they totally work remotely. What is it that makes company leaders still want to get people back into an office? 

So, whatever any company decides to do is completely fine. There shouldn't be anything wrong with it.

The world we're headed to, and the world we're already in actually the past few years, is a world where employees and companies and bosses have just much more choice in terms of the available options, in terms of how they want to work and the world in which they probably have to experiment all the time. 

And even those experiments will not lead to a very clear answer where they're just going to say, okay, before we're all at the office now, we're just going to be four days at the office or some other clear answer.

It will be an ongoing experiment that will include much more diversity. If the CEO of OpenAI, who is currently trying to reinvent the wheel, thinks his team should all be in the same place, that's fine with me. And actually, it makes sense. I think if you can have all the people you need in the same room every day and t

It's just that, in many cases, that's not what happens. One, because, as you mentioned, even with OpenAI, some people you need are not within driving distance to the office. And if you want to match the best-specialized talent to the very specific tasks you're trying to do and things you're trying to accomplish, you will most likely have to hire people that are remote or somewhere else, at least some of the time.

Second, OpenAI is a very new and small company, so it's easy at the beginning, with 20  to 100 people excited about what's going on for a year, to keep that level of engagement. 

But once you have to employ 5000 or 10,000 people and keep hiring, you very quickly realize that by limiting yourself to only one city, you're paying a very high price in terms of recruitment, matching talent to tasks, and maintaining that engagement of employees over time.

You also realize that people are happy to work like soldiers on something for a year but that, after a while, they have to start balancing other things in their lives like family and time control over their schedule. So quickly, you see how remote becomes important again.

Ultimately, there are structural reasons companies are becoming more flexible and dependent on remote. And I'm happy to dive into those, too. 

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Different models work for different stages of companies may be different industries. What other factors play into what would work for one company that wouldn't work for another?

In the past, let's say the industrial world is what we keep comparing everything to as a benchmark. If you take the 1950s as the epitome of the industrial world, companies were industrial, which meant that they had a very linear production process, which meant, you put more stuff into the machine, and  more stuff comes out.

If you have more labor, you have more resources, which means you can produce more. And the fact that we can produce more means that we're going to sell more because there are not a lot of other alternatives. It wasn't easy to make the stuff we were consuming; the washing machines and TVs were new and hard to produce.

Marketing was also much simpler because only one or two TV channels existed. So you knew that if you could make the car or the washing machine, you would buy ads on the TV, and 70 or 80% of your customers would watch those ads, and then they would buy your stuff. You may have had two or three competitors, but most of you were probably doing well overall.

Today we're increasingly moving into a world of non-linear production, which means it's much harder for companies to know what works and what doesn't. It's no longer just about throwing more resources at something and selling more. 

We're seeing wherever we look, that you might have a team of ten people that achieve something that another team of 10,000 people cannot achieve.

It's most notable in the world of media and social networks, where some person uploads a viral video and then gets to billion views. At the same time, a studio can invest $400 million in something and lose money. 

It's true in all other consumer products too. We have an abundance of almost everything in the world. It's easy today to go on Alibaba and get a washing machine. But then the challenge is how do you market it? How do you stand out? 

We're increasingly dependent on those dynamics that are nonlinear and out of control. Companies today are struggling to predict their own needs in terms of headcount. When they think ahead, ten years or even two years, it's very hard for them to know how many people are going to require what are these people going to do? Which part of the world will they be in?

So from the demand side, this whole notion of signing a ten-year lease and having that stability is no longer there. 50 years ago, it was in the interest of the landlord and the tenant to have a longer lease. Both wanted that certainty and had enough information to make those decisions.

But today, from the tenant side, even with all the goodwill in the world, they don't know what they need. So that's one thing. The second thing is our work is becoming increasingly specialized and increasingly dependent on knowledge, as opposed to manual labor or working in a factory. 

And once work becomes specialized, it benefits much more from what I mentioned earlier, which is this idea of talent matching, or matching the exact person with the exact skill set that enables them to do what you need.

We see the right person in the right place can make all the difference in the world, which is not the same in industrial ones. In a factory, if you take one employee or ten employees, the ten employees will do ten times more work and produce ten times more than the one employee.

But in the world of creative thinking, a thousand people trying to sing like Freddie Mercury are not going to sing like one Freddie Mercury, A thousand people trying to come up with something like Steve Jobs are not going to invent the iPhone no matter how much time they spend on it. It's a world of nonlinear dynamics, and often it's not even possible to know who that person is.

We don’t even know who Steve Jobs is before he becomes Steve Jobs, which means that you have to hire from a much larger pool of candidates, and you have to try to make very specific matches to make sure that you have a person who is the best possible person for that specific job. 

That can only be achieved if you're hiring not just from a single city but from a whole country or world.

And since that is the case, it no longer makes sense to limit yourself to a single office or only hire from one region. Even before COVID, we started to see the world's largest and most innovative companies, Amazon, Spotify, Stripe, Facebook, and Apple, open R&D centers worldwide, splitting their headquarters into multiple parts.

These were not regular branches. They didn't open those offices to sell to the local market. They opened those offices to hire from the local market. Basically, telling us that, ideally, I would like all my people to be in one place, but it's more important to me to hire from more places to tap into that broader talent pool.

And these two forces, these non-linear dynamics and the need for matching over a large pool of candidates, will only become more important as work becomes even more creative, abstract, and less industrial. 

So that then leads to another big topic that we need to tackle. So you talked about work becoming more creative and specialized to the person; that's a lot of the promise we've been hearing about AI.

AI can do our mundane tasks. It can do our menial work so that we can do what we're truly good at as people. And you recently wrote
an article that links AI and remote work.

I have a few questions about that, but before I ask, are you okay with sharing what A.I. is and why people suddenly care about it so much? 

Artificial intelligence is the effort to make computers think like humans. Depending on how you count, people have worked on it for at least 70 years in earnest. And over the last year in particular, there have been some major advances, most visible with a product called ChatGPT, which is like a chatbot that you can talk to.

But when you start chatting with it, you quickly realize it behaves very differently from any computer you interact with. It speaks like a human. It understands things in context, you can really have a conversation with it, refine ideas, and go back to what you told it before.

You can treat it like an intern or an employee for tasks like summarizing, rewriting, coding, and turning documents into presentations. Today, there's a lot of hype about how this will impact the workforce. Individuals already use it to scale their time, become more productive, automate many menial and repetitive tasks, and supercharge their creativity. They can develop cool new things and quickly turn their ideas into reality.

Right. And one of the things you mention in the article is that the more we work digitally, the more I can take over those menial parts of our job. Does that mean this can become a flywheel where AI and remote work can fuel each other?

Since COVID and up until 5 minutes ago, everyone was talking about remote work as the big shift in the world of work. In the last few months, everybody's been suddenly saying forget about remote work; AI is the next big thing that will eliminate jobs or automate them.

These two topics are very related, and they work together. Over the past three years, the remote work revolution prepared the ground for AI’s entrance into the workplace. It did so in a few ways. 

When work goes remote, it also goes digital, which means that people are no longer communicating in person, but via chat apps, video calls, and online collaboration tools from Slack to Google Docs to our Airtable and Asana.

And also, work becomes asynchronous because people collaborate over different time zones. They don't necessarily collaborate through ongoing conversations or calls, or meetings. They do their work and then deliver it, and then they get judged based on what they delivered. 

This created a perfect breeding ground for AI because now that AI is good enough, it can seamlessly plug into these processes. If we were all working in offices and speaking to each other, it would have been very hard for a chatbot to jump into the meeting.

And we would have had to change all of our workflow. But now, since our workflows are already digital and they happen in the cloud, it's very easy to plug AI into them – add it into our Slack group or connect it to our Google doc or tap into an API that does things to our material that is already digitized and in the cloud.

This makes it much easier for AI to make an impact from day one and connect to our existing workflows without us having to make any drastic changes. And this flywheel continues because now AI makes online collaboration even more effective, making digital presence much more realistic. So it allows us to create much richer avatars of our faces and voices and collaborate more richly on digital tools.

We're already seeing that emergence, which would make it much easier for humans to work remotely, which means that more humans and more digital collaboration will move online, making it even easier for AI to affect even bigger chunks of our work. 

So I see it as a flywheel that, over the next ten years, will intensify and make work much more dependent on Artificial Intelligence while at the same time making work more distributed and much more digitized. 

The link between remote work and AI is such a fascinating notion. And to highlight something you just said, if we're all sitting in an office having conversations, it's really hard for AI to deliver value there because those conversations aren't online.

I use Fireflies to join online meetings, transcribe them, send summaries within 10 minutes after the meeting ends, and give us the to-do for our next meeting. I saw Slack is now launching its GPT, which can tell you which conversations you missed and why you should pay attention to what.  

All of that stuff is impossible in an office together working together. So the two really, really fuel each other. Is that also a risk? I remember the CEO of Zillow called out the risk of a two-class system where the people in the office versus the people remote have very different experiences and maybe even opportunities.

Yeah, there's definitely a risk there. I don't know which of those groups is going to benefit. We assume that those at the office will get accelerated, promoted, and have more access to the boss.

But the bosses themselves are often not at the office, which is part of the problem. A lot of the theory assumes that younger people benefit more from going to the office because they can get a mentor or then they can learn. But those younger people are the least interested in coming to the office, so there are definitely a lot of management challenges. 

Again, I don't see a simple solution to them. Companies will have to continue to experiment, but that points to one at least partial solution: not to try to have a company-wide policy. It's more important for specific teams to define what works for them and how they would like to collaborate and decentralize their learning and management processes.

Because one of the consequences of what's happening now in office is that it's just harder to manage companies centrally. This is not just because people are not coming to the office but also because of the changing network nature of work itself. 

In the industrial world, work was much more hierarchical. It was easier to plan things, to tell everyone what to do, and for that process to produce something useful. Today we increasingly rely on multiple small teams or even individuals doing things to ultimately see what works, which product is the winner, and what seems to have an impact.

A lot of bosses are struggling to adapt to that type of world. They're not sure what their role is in that type of world. They're still holding on to the need to control or feel like they're in charge and that their instructions cause things to happen. While in reality, we’re increasingly managing creative people and artists.

So we have to inspire them. We have to give them an environment where they can do their best work, but we can’t tell them exactly what to do or how to do it at any moment. Some companies are doing it better than others. 

I just read about Airbnb. First, they finally became profitable this year, so the results are there. But also a year or two ago, they told employees they could live and work wherever they want. And people love it because it's not just an office policy, but it's in the DNA of the company, that idea that we're all citizens of the world and that you can create your own lifestyle.

Let's figure out what works best for you. And as long as you figure out how to be productive with your team, then we as a company are happy about it. And one of the things that they described is that a few years ago, 95% of their employees lived within commuting distance of the office.

And now, about a quarter of them live much farther away than that. Plus, they have more offices in other parts of the world. Even people that live near the office are now living in all sorts of regions that five or ten years ago were regions where Airbnb was not hiring, and you couldn't get a good tech job.

And now you can do so again; just such a fascinating example of how the policies of our companies and the cities that are taking us hostage determine so much of what we do. When you tell people they can live anywhere, a quarter of your workforce moving to other places is incredible.

And I will point out that you live in an amazing city people love cities. So I'm not saying everyone's going to run away. If more high-paid people can work from anywhere, they will want to live in New York, London, and the big cities in Asia, just because those cities are so cool to live in. 

But, you don't have to be a captive of them for your work. Other people on Earth would want to live there; if you move out, someone will take your apartment and be happier, and maybe you want to live somewhere else. 

I'm sure the residential landlords in New York will love to hear that. 

Dror, one big topic that links a lot to what you were saying about how the nature of work has changed is the topic of productivity. 

You recently referenced the CEO of Clearlink, who in one speech both commended someone for selling their family dog to move back to the office and said that we all should be 30 to 40, 50 times more effective because AI can now enable us to do much more work.

The theme of productivity is coming up a lot. What is your take on measuring productivity and whether people are more productive at home, in the office, or both? 

Again, there isn't a clear answer anymore. We're not in a factory, a call center, or some administrative office of the 1970s or 1980s.

More and more of our work is very hard for us to predict and measure, not just for our bosses but for us, ourselves. I do very creative work. I write, and some days I sit down, and within 30 minutes, I write 5000 amazing words. And then I spend four days banging my head against the wall to write 500 words about something else.

Sometimes, after two months of researching something, it's complete crap, and nobody cares about it. While some other thing I tweeted in 2 minutes suddenly gets a million views and is more beneficial for me financially than the thing I spent a lot of time on. And that's just normal life. It's a very schizophrenic and crazy process.

This is increasingly true for a lot of other people, and when you ask bosses, even at the office, even before COVID, even before remote work, some of the largest companies in the world, if you ask their H.R. departments and even their real estate departments to try to predict how much office space they need and how do they measure productivity and how do they assess the impact of different changes that they made in terms of, again, employment procedures or office design or schedules?

It mostly boils down to running surveys and asking employees whether they feel more productive. It's already not very scientific. And, of course, what employees tell you, they themselves have no idea whether they are more productive or not. They can tell you how they feel. And now, remote work gets even trickier because you don't see the employees.

You can't even pretend that you're managing them or know exactly what they're doing at any moment. So so, it's really hard. Let go and try a completely different approach, like empowering people to make their choices and judging them based on output over time. Not like every day asking how many lines of code did you write or how many letters you show off, and how long was your laptop open?

And the specific window on it was, were you looking at it? But, over time, see whether people are generating or bringing the goods you expect, but do not get too hung up on the specific process. 

There needs to be more conversation between employees and managers and between managers and leadership about what productivity is and what good work looks like for someone.

A recent Clickup study discussed one of the main challenges with productivity: most employees define productivity as when they feel define productivity as when they feel that I've accomplished something. Whereas managers look at the output, they look at, how long were you online? What laptop screen did you have open? So if you have a fundamental misunderstanding between those two parties, you'll never figure it out.

So it's one of the main topics that will continue to spark debate, and I look forward to reading more of your writing on it. 

As we're at the end now, just one final question. Is there any one thing you want to leave people with? Something you want people to remember you for one piece of wisdom, one wish for humanity you would put on a billboard?

I don't know if it's a wish for humanity, but it's a very important trend we haven't discussed. It is the rise of the scalable class

Unlike any time in history, a single human being today has more power to achieve basically whatever they want than ever before, which means whatever idea you have, you can now become as big as the corporations of 100 years ago, just on your own, with the help of AI and the internet in any field.

Whether you're building software, writing poetry, designing things, giving advice, or teaching, we can suddenly become scalable in how we use space and time. 

Those constraints don't apply to us anymore. On the one hand, this is wonderful, but on the other hand, it means that we're moving into a world where there are going to be really big winners and where just being in the middle is no longer going to be such a great option.

So, we'll all be competing against everyone else on Earth, providing exactly the same service, or we'll be superstars. If, in the past, our parents told us to aim for the middle, study something boring just like everyone else, and in the worst case, we'll still have a stable job, buy a house, and have a reasonable income.

That option is increasingly less and less available. So we all have to double down on what makes us unique. And the good news and the bad news is that it's not very clear what will be considered a productive job in ten years or even 20 years, which means that we have to experiment and tap into whatever it is that only we can do.

And that's usually not like a skill that we're born with, but a combination of things, our experiences, our interests, the places we've been, the friends that we have, basically taking all of these together and trying to create something unique, that ultimately gives you a voice that resonates with other people that are like you. And it doesn't have to be with a million or a billion people.

It's enough that it will be with 100 people or a thousand people, but your specific voice and expertise are relevant to them. They'll be willing to pay a premium for it. So don't be afraid to explore, and don't try to aim for the middle and to be boring or follow the laws of the 1950s because they're probably not going to get you too far.

The bottom line of it is that to have a chance to succeed now, we have to take much more risk than we ever did. But simultaneously, if we take those risks, the rewards are bigger than ever. And often, it's not very expensive to try, write something, post it online, email someone, or build something. It's so cheap today that you can do it again and again and again and again. 

Do what makes you unique. I couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful note to end this podcast. Dror, thank you so much for being on and sharing your insights. 

Thank you. I hope to visit you and see you in person soon. 

That would be wonderful.

Find Dror on, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.