Where do you prefer to work? The question is as fundamental as ‘where do you want to live?’ And the answer to either will depend on the individual as well as the requirements of the job.
Different people have always flourished in very different environments. But, in the old days, hardly anyone had the luxury of choice. Farm workers worked on farms, factory workers worked in factories and so on. No doubt the ordered working environment suited many people perfectly well. But there were plenty of misfits too and it is sad to think of all those millions from our parents’ generation and further back, who were obliged to work in environments that never remotely suited their temperament.
What has changed irreversibly in the past few years is that more and more people can now choose where they would prefer to work.
For many of us, there isn’t a single place where we find ourselves most productive. An environment that is ideal for reading or listening – public transport or a conference hall – may not be conductive to taking decisions or otherwise making things happen.
Increasingly, we want a bit of everything – a place where we can meet people, look things up, enjoy some visual stimulus, chat, interact and observe, then to move into a quiet area, to think or make phone calls.
In the past 20 years, public spaces have changed enormously. Airports are no longer designed merely to maximise shopping opportunities; increasingly, they are responding to customer demand by creating more business lounges and public areas where people can either connect to the internet or plug in their laptops. And just as bookshops changed 20 years ago to introduce coffee shops and encourage people to sit and chat, now airports are putting books into their bars and cafés so that customers can browse as they wait.
Perhaps in reaction to the multitude of aural and visual stimuli to which we are constantly exposed, our attention spans have become shorter, so we no longer want to be imprisoned in one particular environment for any length of time. Instead, we want options.
A historic institution such as the British Library has more or less reinvented itself in response to this demand for options and variety. The books and quiet areas are still there, of course, but taking advantage of its proximity to the Eurostar terminal and rail links to northern Britain, the Library now provides wi-fi connectivity for more than 4,000 people, as well as meeting-rooms with video facilities. About 5,000 people a day now use the British Library for business purposes, and a growing number of companies use the premises to bring together staff from around Britain and Europe.
Not only public organisations, but private clubs, are changing their configurations, procedures and rules, to take account of this growing demand for flexible workspaces. Modern clubs can no longer rely on stylish premises and distinguished histories to attract members; increasingly, they must provide communication facilities too. Traditionalists may wince, but business rooms are proliferating in clubland, and the rules restricting use of personal digital devices are being relaxed. People need to be able to move easily from leisure and conversation to the exchange of electronic information – whether it is to share a document with a colleague, or share a photograph with a relative.
Mentioning the overlap between business and family brings me to another vital development: the growing realisation that homeworking by itself is not the answer. Towards the end of the last century, millions of people all over the world realised for the first time that new technology meant they were no longer obliged to commute to offices; many of them persuaded their employers or clients that they could do their jobs just as well from home – as they could in many cases. But a few years on, many of these same people have come to realise the extent of the compromises involved, and the conflicts and awkwardnesses that can result.
A year ago, Regus conducted some research in which we learnt from many of those who had embraced homeworking that they were finding it far harder than they had imagined – that work and children did not mix as happily as they had hoped, that they were cramping their spouse’s style in some way they had never envisaged, or that they were simply becoming desperate for human society and stimulus away from home.
Into the gap between public and private working there has emerged a new category of workspace, a new way of working. We call it the ‘privileged space’ – an area in which you can be completely anonymous and do your own thing, but where you can also, if you wish, read, learn and absorb from live meetings, webinars, printed material or PCs. What makes these privileged spaces attractive is this precious ability to opt in or opt out – at your discretion. Like a work shopper, you can browse and select according to your mood.
Nowhere is sacred, nor should it be. Even on the beach, once the epitome of “getting away from it all”, we see more and more people using digital devices to exchange information, chat or work, depending on their priorities on any given day. And why not? If you can edit a report while enjoying the sunshine, or if you can reassure yourself about the latest developments in your business before you go for a dip, where’s the harm? You are not interfering with the enjoyment of any other beach users, while your colleagues may find the quality of your work improves in such invigorating surroundings.
The resistance of traditionalists is useless. We should embrace this new ability to choose our place of work as a liberation. The power, at last, rests with the user or individual, and if the demand is there, Regus, which has already opened business centres in prime residential areas, will be more than happy to open for business on the beach.
Celia Donne (pictured) is regional director, Regus