This week's guest writer is Adam Tinworth, Journalist & Blogger at One Man & His Blog
It says much about us as a culture that we so often see “staring out of the window” as a bad thing. It’s what you do when you’re bored, staring forlornly out of a window as a child trapped indoors by rain, or an adult on an interminable train journey. Those who stare out of the window at work or at school are reprimanded. They are clearly not in the moment, not concentrating on the task in hand.
But a window doesn’t define time; it defines place. One can be in the moment, but wishing one was experiencing that moment elsewhere. The window tantalises and taunts, by showing us somewhere better, yet inaccessible. The relationship between function and place has often kept us the wrong side of the window - a mechanic must work in his garage, a farmer in his field. The office worker, the commuter, the white collar commerce warrior treks to his office, because that’s where he needs to be to get his job done.
The office was once the place where we were ruled by our books and papers. It was a temporary home for us - during our working hours - but the full time home of the documents we worked with. We were but guests in a house of ledgers, invited into their tyranny by the nature of our jobs.
Like so many tyrants, paper was overthrown - by the digital age. And, like so many revolutions, we just exchanged one tyranny for another. We took the wire as our new ruler, and it bound us tightly to our desk. The electric cables to power our computers; the ethernet jacks connecting us to the internet; even the twisted copper of the phone line all conspired to keep us on the office’s side of the window.
The revolution has come again, and the wire is overthrown. Our phones are mobile, our laptops wireless. The wire is relegated to the role of a pitstop, something that refuels us before we head off to other places and things. As yet, no new tyrant has risen to take its place. But we act like one has.
I’m writing this on a wireless window of sorts, a rectangular sheet of glass hooked up to the world through the wireless networks, and one that lets me see, hear and read many things. People call it a tablet, yet nothing about it is carved in stone. I can throw it in a bag, and take it anywhere I wish. I’m already on my third location for this essay, which is finding its final form on my sofa, as my wife and child sleep upstairs.
This new window no longer bars me from another place - it actually lets me be present in a moment and a place of my choosing, and yet have access to the resources I need to do my job. I want to be at home, to enjoy the first weeks of the life of my daughter; I want to work so I can pay for the life she’s starting to live. Now, I can do both.
These sheet of glass, with their hidden electronics, can be many things that once tied me to a particular place: a workstation, a television, an editing suite, a library, a darkroom. It’s a window I can carry anywhere, and see pretty much anything I choose through it. Staring through this window is often the epitome of productivity, not the antithesis.
We may not have realised it yet - but the tyranny of the wire is broken, and we are no longer compelled to stay in our offices to get information work done. The habits of the wire and paper ages are still with us, though. We’ve accepted them as the way things have to be - because they have been for as long as anyone can remember. Too many laptops rest their whole lives on one desk. Too many mobile phones spend their days sitting where their wired predecessor once sat. Things don’t need to be like this. I’ve done community management work from the middle of a field in the Isles of Scilly, written presentations in bars and given interviews in coffee shops. Place no longer has to define function for information work, so our relationship with space has to change.
The office needs to adapt for a more democratic working age. It needs to woo us, win us back into its embrace for at least some of our time. It can no longer dictate to us the devices we use, but must accommodate those devices we choose to use to get the job done. It needs to be a place we want to spend time, not that we’re forced to visit. And for that to happen, we need a new tyrant: people. In a hyper-connected age, the one reason to come into an office is other people. The social interactions, the networking and the chance encounters are the strongest single reason for carving out a chunk of space and saying “this is for work”. We’re still social creatures, and as much as the traditional vision of the office, with its strict hierarchy and petty desk empires created a false social dynamic, the new one must encourage genuine, meaningful interaction. If it doesn’t, we’ll choose to take our work elsewhere.
The rise of this new tyrant is far from assured. Some people want to behave as if the old tyrant never fell. Others feel no need of the office. Some online businesses exist without offices, with people creating virtual workspaces online, and only coming together physically for a few weeks a year. Many more of us, though, want some clearer delineation between work and play, and to feel a sense of belonging in the organisation we work for. Place can be a powerful grounding in that.
Once in a while, I’ll stare through the window of an office building from the outside, and see a place I want to explore. It might be the furniture, or the layout, or the colour scheme. It might even be the way the people within are interacting. It doesn’t matter. These are the offices of the future, the places we’ll gaze at and dream of working.