The undeniable beauty of service as a space

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

Literally everything as a service. On demand, at the end of a command for the purpose, the obsequious flunkification of life. An endgame. We own nothing yet want for nothing. We decide what, when, how and where, and summon it. A paradoxical anti-capitalist capitalism. It’s nothing short of exhausting just thinking about it. But that’s part of the appeal — we don’t have to think about it.

There’s no denying that in terms of physical space in which to work, commitments to pay that outlast any certainty of need are unfeasible, both as a matter of logic and practice. Yet that’s how the market turned for over a century. Customers grumbled to one another, but didn’t organise and signed up, regardless. Until recently, that is.

We might say that the advent of the flexible space offer has changed everything, but it hasn’t. at least not yet. Its changed about 5–10% of the market in most cities. It is, without doubt, the coming genre, but it’s slow and there’s the resistance of habit. ‘Space as a service’ has been the ideological, if not yet the commercial, winner from the pandemic.

Virtually no organisation — or their appointed consultant — has any idea how to calculate its workspace needs now, let alone next week. All the traditional models are obsolete, as the inputs are now in part a matter of judgment. Pre-pandemic data is of historical interest only. Demand is, without doubt, the single biggest problem facing both customers and suppliers. Almost everyone believes it is likely to be ‘less’ but by how much is uncertain, and how patterns will vary over a week or month and longer add to the puzzle. We have, to a huge extent, started over.

There is still a predominantly emotional desire within many organisations to ‘own’ their space, as far as a lease creates the illusion of ownership, a fear of ditching the flagged lawns and marbled waiting rooms. The leasing market is still fizzing, despite the last two years. It may yet take some time before this bond is broken. Agents will tell us it’s the ‘flight to quality’. It’s actually organisations doing whatever they can, given an outdated model.

Within this landscape, we’re struggling with what ‘space’ actually means. We continually hear of the need to create a ‘new purpose’ for it. A small number of organisations have bet on a deskless, photogenic version of the future, all café tables, sofas and a scattering of blurred humans flummoxed by the ergonomic proposition. The prevailing mood is that the office is no longer for administrative tasks, but those interactions we cannot replicate online, even if we actually can. Needless to say, such plays are all based on anecdote and whim. They’re all a version of starting over.

Yet the biggest problem with workspace on a day-to-day basis at present is that unless the people we need to be with are going to be there, it’s rarely worth attending unless we have no alternative. It’s an all-or-nothing situation: all in, or all out. Aside from mandated ‘days in’, when it’s a matter of personal choice it’s dictated by the prospect of critical mass. Which leaves days with barely a flat white dispensed. All of which is entirely commercially and environmentally unsustainable.

The issue may well be that we’re evaluating all of this through a transactional lens, obsessed as we have become with the metrics of the pandemic era of work: output and productivity. Getting shit done. No matter if it needs doing, or someone else somewhere else is doing it too, or if it actually contributes to anything. All the while knowing that productivity for office workers is achievable without the office.

Our work is about so much more than output and productivity — it’s about our contribution. Stuff that’s not in our job role, that no-one tells us we have to do, or we’re unlikely to ever be appraised on. Which means we need to see workspace beyond its ability to support productivity. In which case, perhaps we need to see space beyond service.

Service is, for the most part, frenetic, an intrinsic component of our stunted attention spans, political indifference and un-activism, an on demand manifestation of the chaotic pulses passing between our temples….there’s no contemplation, no appreciation beyond the closure of the transaction, a rating and a search for the next.

If we treat workspace as a service, what is there for us? As logistically enticing as the flexible model is, perhaps the last thing we need is another opportunity to disengage, to crash on through, to turn our backs at the first opportunity. There is mounting evidence that, despite the short term benefits of remote working, the medium to longer term impact is one of disengagement — from one another, and from our organisations and their wider communities. We’ll only know it’s happened when it’s too late.

Is what we’re actually looking for from a workspace the inverse of frenetic transactionalism? Suppose, therefore, we turn the proposition on its head, and in this regard consider service as a space. That is, we take everything beneficial about service and freeze it in physical form, at the point of delivery. That is, somewhere to pause, to land, to congregate with those we need to today and those we may need to at some future juncture; storing and incubating rather than producing and releasing. Its pull becomes the ease of being and working with one another, resistant to all categorisation of activity and the prowess of the physical form or the immediacy of the offer. In short, proximity.

If we want workspace to do something that working remotely cannot, it has to be based on both the vagaries and opportunities of physical proximity. The mid-state between solo, focussed work and arranged gatherings that enables the others. Ironically it is where coworking began, in the idea of the ‘jelly’ conceived in 2006 — freelancers working in the same (often suboptimal — at least early on) physical space, for company and occasional interaction. Just not to be alone. Not because of anything, but for itself. Doing focussed stuff as well as engaging.

The fascinating development we’ve seemingly set aside in all this is that at the freelance and SME level, the trend for over 15 years has been towards proximity, hence the jelly and coworking spaces. It’s been voluntary, motivated solely by human need. Even in the face of the pandemic. Yet at the larger organisational level, the zeitgeist is the four winds. It’s almost as though those within have to go through the same process as the freelancers who first assembled at one another’s homes to work together, to realise its necessity. As time has proven already, and will likely prove again, we’re naturally inclined to seek togetherness. It’s something we need to discover for ourselves. In doing, so we’ll fashion the space we need from the essence of service. And it will be all the better for it.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog