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Our relationship to space is a complicated one. Space is one of those terms that many of us sense we grasp but struggle to describe with any precision. It is often imagined in terms of an imprecise distance, as in the space between objects and people, or a quantity, as in, “How much space is left on my hard drive?” or “Is there space in the living room for a desk?” Space is the subject of scientific practice as well as an opportunity for galactic travel and exploration. Our definitions of space really depend on where we’re coming from. And, let’s face it, most of us simply take space for granted — something that surrounds us and to which we generally pay little notice.
As a number of social scientists have convincingly argued, space is not merely a static, inert dimension in which “stuff” is placed and organized. Space is known to us by virtue of the social interactions that make it visible: Space is both deeply political and unquestionably social.1 Keeping six feet apart while practicing social distancing brings the relational, interpersonal quality of space front and center. It is also a reminder that our space is shared; my air is your air, and what I do affects your space, and vice versa.
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For those of us fortunate enough to have been able to conduct our work within the relative safety of our domestic spaces over the past year, there has been a general sense of disorientation and a blurring of work and home life.
Many other people, however, have had no choice but to get up every day and go to a place of work. Think for a moment about the kinds of proximities that onsite caregivers, teachers, health care providers, delivery people, transit workers, and store clerks face daily due to the necessary density of their workspaces. They must contend with their inability to distance much from other people and the consequent anxieties that this likely instills in them — at the workplace and in the (often public) transportation routes required for them to get to work.
The past pandemic year has magnified inequalities. In many cases, it has been the most vulnerable and marginalized — particularly Black and Brown people and women working in the service sectors — who have continued to do the essential face-to-face work that those of us working from home have been able to safely avoid. We’ve benefited from the very work that has put others at risk. We’ve safely retreated while others have carried on. In this sense, immobility has become a form of privilege as mobility has become one of risk.
Of course, racial and gender inequality aren’t new stories. What is new is how our spatial awareness has changed as a result of spending the past year negotiating altered spaces. Also new is the growing awareness that one group’s “new normal” is another group’s “business as usual,” with all the inequities it entails.
What will business as usual look like in the post-pandemic office? Will some of us continue to use our private spaces as workspaces? Do we need to be in the same place as our colleagues to take advantage of the creative frictions that physical colocation is known to encourage? Or can we get by with a curated combination of remote work and in-person work, as the popularity of hybrid arrangements suggests?
Prioritizing Human Connection
In the January 2021 report “Shaping the Future of Work for a Better World,” global commercial real estate company JLL predicted that accelerated digital workplace transformation, coupled with an emphasis on the worker, will “address both the rising expectations of the workforce and the growing importance of human connection.” Future workspaces will need to be more flexible, less centralized, and more people-centric to both attract and retain the best talent while ensuring that these workers are energized and creative both when working remotely and in person.
In fact, in conversations about what we’ve missed most about the offices we left behind last year, a persistent theme has emerged: We’ve missed our colleagues. We miss the opportunities for chance interactions with people we know well and those from other teams we may know less well.
Especially for people new to a company, the ability to network and connect in person is critical to building what Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, identified in 1973 as weak ties — those casual acquaintances who move us outside our established and familiar “strong tie” networks.2 Weak ties offer us the opportunity to learn and expand, and in fact most people learn about and get their next job through such connections.
Physical boundaries between work and domestic life have shifted radically for many; so too has our perception of what’s needed for productivity and collaboration, as has the meaning of “the office” itself. These shifts necessitate a rethinking of what kinds of activities are most suited to colocation and which ones are best left to more private venues, whether a home office or a third space. A simple reset to prepandemic policies based on outmoded notions of face time and presentism are no longer assumed nor, in many cases, desired or sustainable.
The time has come for more-nuanced approaches to workplaces as ecosystems rather than discrete physical locations. We need to be asking ourselves and, more important, asking our employees what kinds of experiences benefit from what kinds of spaces — a question that can no longer be treated as though “one size fits all.”
The process of reimagining office spaces introduces critical, overarching questions: How will our imaginations around the concept of workspaces and the evolving use of technology support our work practices? What do today’s transformations suggest about what it means to be human at work?
Within this flux, one fact remains: People are social animals. Personality traits of introversion or extroversion aside, people need people. Advances in digital tools as intermediaries for enabling connection are not enough. Serendipity, while not a new concept in workplace architectural design and planning, will become a more pressing one as hybrid approaches limit workers’ opportunities for in-person interactions. Leaders will need to anticipate and shape the kinds of social moments that enable richer, more meaningful human connections in our offices and work lives.
1. In his book “The Hidden Dimension” (Anchor Books, 1966), anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed his theory of proxemics, arguing that human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory apparatuses that all humans share, are molded and patterned by culture. See also D.B. Massey, “Space, Place, and Gender” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
2. M. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (May 1973): 1360-1380.