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How remote working will transform the shape of our cities

By Simon Hicks
17 January 2022
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The Business Magazine is always keen to showcase new thinking when it comes to tackling real world problems and that is why we have joined up with Label Ventures who last year published a collection of features on strategy, design and innovation under the FLIP banner.

Over the coming weeks and months we will publish a selection of entries from the FLIP book to share some of the innovative ideas contained within.

We would very much like to create a FLIP book full of creative thinking from the South East so if you think differently when it comes to the challenges of work or life and want to share your views then please do get in touch with me Stephen Emerson, head of content for The Business Magazine.

Simon Hicks, Associate Urban Planner at award-winning architectural design and engineering firm Foster + Partners, reflects on how a move to remote working could transform our workplace desires and even our cities. 

Consider where you are at this moment in time. There’s a 33% chance [more or less] you’ll be sitting at a home workspace, assuming a typical work week in a career that was formerly known as an ‘office job.’

But now, gone is the carefully designed landscape of professional productivity spaces; instead, you have a home workspace which you most likely fashioned yourself at the start of the pandemic, to varying degrees of professional feel.

READ MORE: The Undercover Economist on how to manage your time and attention

You’ve now sat in this same spot for a rather large proportion of your life, quite to your surprise. It was a corner never intended for primary work. Maybe it was a dining table, or a quiet place you browsed the internet for exotic escapist holidays. Whatever the past may be, you’ve now adapted and are getting on just fine with your homebrew office.  

But what if you could have done things differently? If you could have adapted your workspace or teleported it anywhere, how might this new kind of workplace look and function?  

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

There’s no denying the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a humbling test to our human biology, yet the greatest ingenuity of our species is our adaptability to change. Indeed, this pandemic has opened many doors to new ways of thinking, collaborating, and ultimately, working – and that includes popularising new kinds of space we now might call a workspace.

This article offers a short collection of thought experiments that cover how the workspace might evolve in a post pandemic world, considering how we might control our remote work worlds. 

ABOUT ME

As an urban planner working in the design world, I’m driven by understanding cities – especially where different urban services are located and how they function as pieces of our urban lives. For example, where are homes in relation to health facilities, and how are they connected? Where are the local parks serving this community and how can they be designed to be accessible for all age groups? Or, more relevant to today – where are workspaces located and how do they make us productive? 

According to Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist, cities are mankind’s greatest invention, making us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier.” The basic premise here is twofold. Firstly, having a big population in one place means that we can distribute services [health, education] and resources [energy, transport] with more efficiency. Secondly, having a lot of educated urbanites concentrated into one place catalyses a chain reaction of idea generation, innovation and productivity. Most cities have a very dense commercial centre, or downtown, where a large concentration of office workers migrate to everyday to do very productive or creative things. Yet as this ebb and flow has been severely disrupted in the past year, many are wondering if cities will maintain their title as mankind’s greatest invention.

"Most cities have a very dense commercial centre, or downtown, where a large concentration of office workers migrate to everyday to do very productive or creative things. Yet as this ebb and flow has been severely disrupted in the past year, many are wondering if cities will maintain their title as mankind’s greatest invention."

But before we jump to any conclusions, let's take a dive into some of the most novel ways our spaces for working have begun to transform during the pandemic. As with all good intellectual adventures, we’ll start at a place of familiarity – the home – and journey progressively further away from our comfort zones. 

THE HOMEMADE OFFICE WORKER 

In the confines of your own home, you might be thinking “I can get so much done!” You are a domestic deity, an all-star performer at work, and you’ve never missed an Amazon delivery. Yet home working is not that simple, and whilst for some it has been a miracle, for others it has been a curse. The challenge of the home is that it does so much already – offering spaces to sleep, to cook, to exercise, to relax, to raise a child, to host parties and so on. To add a dedicated workspace may not be an option for many due to space limitations. Even if you do have a home office, head space limitations may still apply with such a variety of distractions to hand. 

And yet, by no means are these challenges a reason not to work from home in the future – and the design market is responding. Interior design firms that might have once specialised in retail are exploring the home working market as a new lucrative business area, whilst the ONS suggested a 16% spring rise in household goods retail is connected with consumers’ home renovation projects. Though there’s nothing new about homeworking, expect to see exciting new breeds of home office emerging – such as modular living spaces that can fold away and transform into chic offices. Our homes are as expressive and varied as our own personalities, so who knows exactly what the domestication of homemade office design might yield.

THE 'BUSINESS PARK’ MANAGER

“I’ve been in this room far too long,” you say to yourself and your body slowly ossifies in your homemade office. Only this morning you had been reading about how a ‘garden office’ will now add many thousands in value to residential property. Envious of those with gardens and inspired by the warm summer weather, you pack up your laptop and headset and head to a nearby park, approximately 100m-1km away.

Can a neighbourhood park be adapted to accommodate some workspace and businesses needs in the warmer months of the year? Can it become a ‘Business Park?’ This is one of the questions the Foster + Partners Urban Design Group asked last year. We determined that though some people already work from parks – taking calls or doing high-focus tasks – if we could soften the environmental irritants we might create opportunity for more types of work. Our main British irritants include rain, glare and insects, whilst everyday basics required included electricity, WiFi, toilets and good seating. One solution we offered was temporary tents or shades that can expand when work demands are high, or alternatively could be used as café space when demands are low. 

Parks are already great for meetings of all sorts, but parks can also provide a unique and accessible opportunity to balance the professional feel of a workplace with the wellness we associate with nature. With a bit of ingenuity, small sections of park could accommodate different kinds of outdoor working in the future. Outdoor working might just work!

HIGH STREET SALES

You might now be questioning the limitations of outdoor working, of which there are certainly many. “I just need a place where I can really focus” will be a struggle familiar for many. What if you had a dedicated local space in a building down the 1-10km road – a quiet space you share with like-minded individuals where you won’t be bothered by kids or distracted by all your unfinished projects around the house? You want a place where people will not judge you for being too noisy or deviating from normal work behaviours. 

Let’s take this sentiment and stitch it together with our present high street concerns. Some of the biggest losers during this pandemic have undoubtedly been the local retail stores and eateries that lined our town centres for generations. Let’s not get too sentimental, though – instead of concerning ourselves with the lost past we could look to the opportunities of the near future.

Imagine a high street that isn’t just for fashion, but rather, hosts a whole range of entertainment and wellness venues alongside food establishments and, of course, new kinds of workspace that could sit somewhere between a public library and a subscription co-working space. High streets are already great for office based business to consumer sales, with estate agents being the most prominent example. Yet more contemporary models are arising. WeMRKT, for example, is an offshoot of WeWork in New York that showcases new products from businesses in the WeWork co-working spaces above. Even more radical is Market Peckham in South London – a co-working space sandwiched between a made-in-house shop, a basketball court, a trendy café and a rooftop wine bar. Monoculture high streets might well become passé, replaced by kaleidoscope parades where you can work, explore, play and decompress. 

Picture: iStock

THE COUNTRYSIDE CONTEMPLATOR

“I need a break but I really don’t want to use up my holiday” is an idea that many of us may grapple with from time to time. In most normal lines of work, there’s a strong demarcation between leisure and work time, yet this has not always been the case. Bill Gates famously takes solitary reading holidays in his small lake house, whilst Kevin Parker of Tame Impala writes some of his music from Wave House – an isolated recording studio at the edge of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park in Australia. These retreats provide a holiday for the body, and a single focus for the mind. Let’s take a trip to a countryside haven near you, up to 100km away, and explore if the rural retreat is a possible model for individuals, teams, or maybe even whole companies. 

A good rule of thumb in workplace design is that there’s no one size fits all solution. A company's management structure and culture is often directly reflected in their headquarters. There is, however, a soft correlation between R&D intensive activities and access to nature. The Foster + Partners designed McLaren Technology Centre, for example, lies with panoramic views across Woking Woodland. Conversely, H-Farm is a rural startup incubator in the Venetian countryside that feeds innovative teams with a peaceful contemplative environment and organic local foods. 

COVID-19 has spurred a mini exodus of families from large cities like London, and as professionals seek to create more life-work balance, it is possible in the wake of this pandemic we will also find a new genre of company that supports a life-work balance for its employees. It's not hard to imagine how an R&D might, for example, be shipped out to the countryside to do some deep thinking away from the short term pressures and business cycles of headquarters. Especially now, in a world where one good idea can be worth millions, it sometimes might pay to send your geniuses into the woods on office holidays. 

THE WILD WORKER 

You may now be thinking “but I don’t want to be stuck with my team in the Cotswolds...take me 1,000s of km away!” If this is you, you’ve just stumbled upon what is probably the most seductive post-COVID lifestyle – the international work retreat. Whilst the lifestyle of the digital nomad has existed for some years, it is only recently that companies specifically targeting the work-focussed trip have begun to emerge.

CoWork and Surf is an organised retreat company available for booking by teams that blends play time with productive time. Much more recently, big tourism players like +1 Hotels have partnered with Ethos Remotes and are marketing specifically to large companies with work trips that offer a luxury decompression with all the bells and whistles. Van conversions into mobile home/ offices are on the rise, The Economist is reporting new entrepreneurs who are making a career out of repurposing holiday hotels in the Canary Islands into work hotels, and more young people want to be content creators than ever before. An unlikely assortment of stars are aligning to predict an ever global future. 

Whether the international holiday workspaces will ever be more than a niche lifestyle for the very rich or very nomadic remains to be told, but one thing we probably can expect is more workspace choices appealing to a greater diversity of people. This might be as tame as co-working spaces integrated into hotels, or something more extraordinary – like cruise ships repurposed into floating workspace neighbourhoods. Expect to see a lot of new ideas here as the tourism market hustles to adapt to the post-COVID world. 

CONCLUSIONS

If I was being cynical, I would argue that none of this is really new: the home-office actually precedes the purpose-built office; the idea of scholastic study outdoors is at least as old as the ancient Greeks; the town centre has long been an ideal home for solicitors and accountants, and the idea of getting away from civilisation to have profoundly world changing ideas is a common strategy adopted by religious founders and philosophers. What we can observe now, however, are new strands of creativity emerging in our individual attitudes towards work, the management practices of companies, and novel workspace businesses set up by entrepreneurs finding opportunities in the shake-up caused by COVID-19. We are witnessing the creation of more ways for people to control their remote lives. 

And as for the longevity of our cities – surely if everyone transforms their office job into an anywhere job then cities will lose their economies. Yet I don’t expect they’ll suffer too much. Urban Economists will often argue that all successful cities are bound to end up a bit too big. If cities were music festivals, there would be no limit on the number of tickets that could be sold, so we all too often end up with slightly over congested cities. Traffic is a big congestion issue, but the greatest failures of big developed cities are high rents – expensive housing and workplaces. COVID-19 is currently inspiring an exodus of families from London, but I would argue a little less congestion for a short while may actually facilitate happier, more creative, more innovative cities as overcrowding is gently eased and we create space for grassroots entrepreneurialism. Cities are ultimately huge dynamic ecosystems, sprouting new life in the spaces left behind by disaster. 

So, if you worked in an office before the pandemic, now is the time to experiment. Get out of your house and explore the neighbourhood, or even get out of the city – it will be there upon your return. We will never have the perfect solution to the question of where we work, but with more experimentation we might just uncover how to make work work better for more people.