Co-working Alone: Tomorrow’s Shared Work Spaces

Do you long to get back to the hustle and bustle of an office? Or are you hoping that your employer will have realised the value of allowing people to spend more of their time working at home? If you are like me, then your answer is probably along the lines of, “Both. And neither.”

a person in a hoodie sits against a wall.
This poster for my show “Some of These Things Are Beautiful” was taken in an underpass in London where I often wrote

Covid has made many of us consider our work spaces. In particular it has made people, and companies, ask questions as fundamental as “what are offices for?” But beyond these questions, Covid has also challenged us to think beyond binaries about the places where we work. For me, the preference has always been less “work from home” and more “work from anywhere.” And that’s a concept that has really struggled to find an expression in lockdown when not only coffee shops but even the park benches, pavements, and underpasses I have often made my desk have been closed off.

And co-working spaces, already feeling the strain as WeWork collapsed, are being forced by Covid to make the case for their existence all over again.

Given the outcry when people were sent back to vast open plan city based offices by a government and corporate-led culture whose wealth depends in no small part upon rent-taking on those same vast city buildings, everything is adding up to a moment when our individual questions will become collective. And as they do, more and more exciting ideas about what the workplace of the future might look like will emerge. We are already seeing the idea of the 15 minute city gain more prominence, in which many would work in hubs near their home, spaces shared between solopreneurs and those who work for global giants.

And as we face more and more urgent problems as a world, there will surely be greater demands for more hacker and maker spaces, hubs where work is focused on common sets of problems and the boundaries between people, organizations, and disciplines becomes blurry, where that fuzziness is augmented by an open source ethos in which not just the space and utilities, bandwidth and petaflops are shared but consumables, facilities, tools, ideas, code – everything that makes up ownership of the answers to those problems

I’ve certainly been spending a lot of time thinking about my ideal workspace, in the hope of starting from scratch to build it and maybe attract others who want something similar when this nightmare is over. And I’ve found myself returning to ideas that have always fascinated me around “occupying the same space differently” and finding ways to be “alone together”.

These are the kind of superficially paradoxical idea that can give rise to some really rich environments – just think, for example, of the Southbank and the way the tourists, theatregoers, and skaters co-occupy the same space throwing different shapes within the same coordinates, not even, sometimes, separated by time. Nor do they ignore each other so much as have their own way of occupying the space which acknowledges and is enriched by the other ways while not being distracted by them.

Or to think of even more different communities – imagine the way a nest of swifts in our Natural History Museum co-occupies space with curators, visitors, researchers, performers and exhibits. And maybe that hints at something else important – maybe the spaces we work in are more to be curated than managed, with all the possibilities that entails for mixing the temporary and the permanent and placing objects together or separating them from time to time according to theme.

“How do I want to occupy this space?” is, I think, the basic question we have to ask of our ideal work space. And we have to ask it before we imagine a physical location. Because everything else comes from that – whether we are lucky enough to be able to choose a location to which we can apply the answers as filters, or whether we are given a location to make the most of. Starting with a question this fundamental gives us the best chance of finding something that really works.

For me this raises further questions around:

  • time – any space has to be 24/7 for me to do my best work there because of both circumstances and the not-to-time way my neurodivergent brain works.
  • what co-occupation means. The option to be physically alone, and not just alone but isolated, is vital – and that includes not just a soundproofed pod space but thoroughfares (I want to know I won’t encounter someone on my way to the kitchen or bathroom sometimes – either because I need to stay dialled-in or because my brain is playing up). But I also need to know that co-explorers of questions are always on hand – sometimes for synchronous questioning, sometimes asynchronous
  • questions about resources – see what I said about open access above
  • questions about maintenance and allocation of tasks – knowing that stuff won’t be tidied away, and knowing that no surface is sacred if it needs to be written or drawn on matters.
  • basic questions about why we are here – a common purpose, a common identity, a common method – 2 of those, or all?

Anyway, just first thoughts for now, but I’ve seen far too few organizations ask these questions at a time when they need to more tha.n ever

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