“I would prefer not to.” The words uttered by Bartleby the Scrivener in the famous short story that bears his name have become iconic. Every time his boss handed him a piece of work, the downtrodden clerk simply declined the offer with his simple catchphrase. The story is sometimes interpreted as a critique of the soul-crushing and yet all-consuming effects of office work.
Despite Bartleby’s lack of interest in his job, he ended up living in his office, and when evicted died in the poorhouse. It’s like a mid-19th century version of Black Mirror. As they ponder a return to their offices, commutes and al desko lunches, it is easy to imagine many modern office workers channelling poor, haunted Bartleby, and like him muttering: “I would prefer not to”.
From the first lockdowns in 2020, there has been a revolution in white-collar work. Zoom became a verb, elasticated waistbands replaced suits, and lawyers appeared in court as cats. “The only thing we can say with certainty about office life is that it has changed more for good in the last year than it has in the last hundred,” the commentator Julia Hobsbawm wrote in a recent report called The Nowhere Office for the think tank Demos.