Dispatch 12 — Spaces of Work & Life

Earlier in the year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a Dispatch about remote work. Since then the experiment has been ongoing, though some have gone back to workspaces, many are still largely working from home, and although the numbers have gone down, there’s still a good percentage of home workers who would prefer to keep this way of work most days, as long as kids are in school.

In this Dispatch, I’d like to look at some of the new or newly essential spaces and groupings for work and life.

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Personal space of attention

Part mental state, part physical place to foster that mental state. It’s largely a question of how you get “there”; perhaps walking before or taking walking breaks during, making coffee or tea, sitting down at a specific place. Writing in a journal or making a list of things to do first thing in the morning or last thing at the end of the day, to start with intent the next morning. Starting with the most interesting task or “eating the frog” and starting with the hardest. Lining up things to do by matching the need for focus with your energy levels. You’ve probably rearranged these over the last few months but much of knowledge work is done in your head and we need ways of getting our heads in the right space.

Space for group collaboration

I’m cheating a bit with this one, mixing together the ideas of space and group but that’s probably one of the more interesting developments of this working pandemic. Although it started emerging earlier, this kind of space and behaviour seems to have evolved quite a bit in recent months.

When I say “space” I mean an online space but I also stretch the idea to making space in your schedule. Whether it’s purposefully to grow a network and business opportunities, or more randomly because of some unforeseen free time, people have been going online to find peers and opportunities, and it’s proven worthwhile and sometimes surprisingly rich.

Venkatesh Rao setup the Yak Collective on Discord, “a network of over 300 independent consultants, coaches, and freelancers,” which has sparked some research, collaborations, and opportunities for client work.

Tom Critchlow setup his own Discord, which he’s written up here. I’m a member of both but much more involved in Tom’s and the “salons,” especially one of the first with the “tour” of a Figma file instead of slides, with visitors in an audio chatroom, was very useful and an inspiration for projects I’m considering. Add the multiple discussions across a variety of topic and it’s been a worthy water cooler over the last few months. It’s also just one of many, and the more intensive use while cloistered seems to have made possible a qualitative step beyond the old “chatting with pals” in a private Slack.

Another variant of these ideas was well presented by Toby Shorin in the piece Squad Wealth which I covered in issue No.138.

Group collaboration is now the strong default, putting squads at the center of social, cultural, and economic life. To paraphrase Bill Bishop: today people are born as individuals, and have to find their squad. […]

For the squad to understand itself as a whole, it maintains boundaries circumscribing strong group norms. Fuck a Dunbar number—the ideal squad count is no more than 12. How can you really be present with more than a dozen people? Small groups are crucial for tight coordination.

A number of people, like myself, Peter, or Matt who’s calling them unoffice hours have setup open calendar hours for anyone to book some time for a chat with no agenda. The goal is to try and regain some of that “lets grab a coffee” energy and serendipity.

Online events have multiplied but many are just Zoom lectures and kind of boring, with very few listeners. However, when the speaker is at ease and good at multi-tasking or side-kicked by a good moderator, the smaller sizes make for something perhaps more like the vaunted hallway discussions at live events. When people are welcomed by names, questions from the audience actually asked and answered, and perhaps even some interaction between attendees, it can be quite valuable. Will this format die because there are too few people to make it sustainable, or mutate into something that leverages the positives I just highlighted? Probably the latter for the next little while but there will probably need to be a big jump in quality and value for the speaker for such a format to live on post-pandemic.

On the other hand, maybe the Discords above become a new kind of “venue” for small intimate presentations. Eliot Peper has tweeted a few times that the many virtual bookclubs he’s been invited to as the author have been great fun and very valuable, maybe there’s a version for people with ideas and practices to circulate like that.

Physical space with a team

This is something I was thinking about earlier this month when I wrote Eudaimonia Machine, co-leases, coworking, & cafes. Having different spaces for different modes of work, or different options, is essential to producing good work. Silly-con Valley companies and places like We Work are often laughed at for their fun offices but at least they usually get part of it right; with nooks and loungey areas for people to switch modes, get together or get alone.

The center, in those cases and in many companies, remains the open space and that’s where the next step is; shifting to distributed / remote and putting the need for focus at the center of where work gets done. Collaborative and communing spaces are in the periphery, both physically and in priority. Sometimes it’s going to be as in the flipped workplace, a space used part of the week for occasions where being in person is the most effective, and in some cases the yearly, quarterly, or other all-hands meetings, à la Automattic and various other distributed companies. Google have already announced that they are rethinking their offices to fit alongside WFH and to make room for “on-sites.”

Physical space of your own

From the actual home office you work in, to the things you need in there, to what your employer might pay for or not, to changing budgets for just that, but also to audio equipment, maybe a green screen, better broadband and wifi, to a new outdoor table for parts of the day. But lets also think of the considerations for where one actually lives. Should you move to a new apartment to get an actual home office? A ground floor one to have an outdoor space? Perhaps even to a smaller town or even the countryside to get all of that. There will likely be fewer people moving house than some early polls might have indicated, but there are sure to be some changes in business districts, some newly popular suburbs or villages. And probably some growing privilege gap between those who can, those who can’t afford to, and those who remain to do the essential work that just can’t be moved.

Groups you belong to day to day

Related to the above. Did you get closer to your neighbours? Perhaps organized with others for mutual aid, or maybe you ended up disconnected and far from everyone, which made you consider a move back closer to family? Or maybe that cabin you spent a couple of months in during the summer sounds perfect to move to, but puts you an hour’s drive from your social circle. If schools close again, can you “bubble up” with some other families? Team up with another single parent? Split schooling with others? Share a garden? Some people discovered how autonomous they were, some how much they needed to see their friends in person, met their neighbours for real, divorced, came out stronger, explored their neighbourhood, got closer to a peer group online, collaborated with new people who used to be too far. Whatever the kind or degree, for most of us the shape and importance of the groups we belong to mutated during the pandemic’s first wave and, for many, is already informing some changes for the second wave (hopefully you’re some place which will dodge that one).

Next

In the before times, it was always fascinating to me to see café after café packed with people working on laptops. Sure, some are students but there are also a lot of people working their jobs or self-employed contracts, I’m always wondering how they could find each other, collaborate, find peers. Coworking is a way but there’s also got to be more and I think these months of working from home and grasping for connection has advanced our understanding of these virtual spaces and circles of peers. The next stages should be interesting to watch develop.

Some of what I’ve just shared is a) highly pandemic specific and b) concerns my circles of interests, especially as it relates to indies or very small studios. What else have you seen? How differently are these concepts lived as employees?


Header image: Office coffee shop, Shoreditch, London by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.