In an age of social disconnection, it falls on the office to help build a community
I abandoned life as a freelance writer due to its paralysing loneliness. I remember once sticking a note to my computer that read, ‘Remember to go outside.’
It was an isolating experience matched only by those early days as a stay-at-home mum of a newborn, before I discovered the intellectual comforts of talk radio – and sought out the secret society of other mothers like me who, while bursting with pride and love, were also going crazy.
Now, the screen is my workspace – any screen. I click, swipe and tap my way through the day. What does the design of a workplace matter, when the most important view is through this digital window? The office is no longer integral to the embodiment of a brand – identities are now constructed and promoted online, and needn’t exist in bricks and mortar at all. A particularly lovely office might be a source of delight, but I can work anywhere – join those squadrons of MacBook workers overrunning the best coffee shops and have my lattes brought to me – the challenge is when to stop working.
Still I like going to an office. I like gliding through the city on my bicycle alongside a stream of other cyclists on our quiet tree-lined route. I like hanging up my things on a coat rack, and saying good morning, how was your weekend? I like working as a team: the banter, the agglomeration of talent, the throwing together of people with different specialities, the annoyances and frictions forcing action, compromise and innovation.
‘The most important things are the small ones – a fast internet connection, mobile signal, access to tea and biscuits, a variety of places to sit’
I have been asked more than once by architects, how I can bear the offices of The Architectural Review. We surround ourselves with cups of tea, books and archive editions of the AR, and in this hot-desking environment, personal touches are few. But when I am zinging along creatively, tapping out a column, signing off pages, joking with colleagues, or brainstorming, the environment melts away.
The most important things are the small ones – a fast internet connection, mobile signal, access to tea and biscuits, a variety of places to sit for quiet or noisy work, a place to go for meetings, somewhere nearby to eat, daylight and a decent view.
Indeed, that other window, the real kind, with its London skyline, where I might observe the passing of the day, the weather changing, the winter sunset and the latest erections on the skyline – Piano, Viñoly, Rogers – is a sobering reminder of the responsibility of architecture to people like me, who have to look at this stuff all day.
But even the best view isn’t enough to get people to take their headphones off and work together. In this age of social disconnection comes the need for the design of an office to help build a community. There are times when we may require quiet work and focus, but solitude is rarely the route to creativity, just as architecture is almost never the work of a maverick genius.
The best workplace brings people together who would never frequent the same coffee shop; combining different skills and talents and forging both alliances and sparks. Enough with the buzzwords of dynamic working and breakout spaces – the truth is, we need to talk.