Back 8 April 2024 by Damian Sosnowski

Rethinking Workspaces: The Local First Revolution

#thoughts #people

Conventional office work is dead, but the remote work revolution did not deliver on its promises and is now facing a backslash. What if there was a better way? A solution that will remove the painful pitfalls of the monolithic office and cure the loneliness of remote work. A new, dynamic, local-first office model that fosters a sense of belonging, collaboration and helps local communities. Too good to be true?

Home office, remote work, work from anywhere. It seemed that it won. The new normal was there. A wonderful new world. Many companies have defaulted to remote-first setup. Many employees refused to work in any other way. Zooming in from the warm comfort of their bedroom became a reality for workers around the globe.

And yet, recently, there seems to be a backslash, a counterrevolution. Many companies, including BigTech, are now forcing their workers to go back to the office. Sometimes threatening them with brutal repercussions if they don’t. Companies claim that working from the office allows them to foster their “wonderful culture”, improve communication and bring back the spark of innovation that disappeared between one status update meeting and another.

Ruthless office work

The dark side of the office work is well known. The stress. The pressure. Office politics. Gossiping. Depressing grey cubicles and noisy open spaces.

But the biggest problem with office work, reported in every related research, is the commute. Years of life wasted in traffic during the daily commute to the office and back home.

Obligation to live within the proximity of the office usually means sky-high cost of living and unaffordable real estate prices.

Companies like to have offices in central districts of big cities, as it brings prestige and better access to the talent pool. But it creates a competitive spiral that encourages everyone to live in the same place, driving costs sky high. It often leads to the erosion of the structure of the city and its society as in a well known case of San Francisco.

Miserable remote loneliness

And yet, with all the drawbacks of office work, the promised land of remote work has its flaws. The promised freedom and focus are often far from the truth, especially in companies that switched to remote work without rethinking their way of working and went with the Zoom-all-the-things! approach.

As a result, instead of spending hours in conference rooms, people spend hours on video calls. It’s at least twice as exhausting if you ask me.

And yes, deep work and lack of distractions are great, but even the most introverted tech nerds need some honest human-to-human interaction from time to time.

Remote workers do say they enjoy remote work and are more productive and at the same time, they do report higher anxiety and loneliness.

Real human interaction is important. If not for your work, at least for your mental health.

And if you work from home and have small children? That’s a whole new level of misery.

Finally, as a manager, I have to notice, that people do work better if they know each other and interact with each other in the real world. They don’t have to meet every single day, but there is a significant difference in how well teams operate if they were given a chance to sit in a single room for some time and grab a beer or lemonade together after work. That’s the factor that even remote-enthusiasts have to acknowledge and incorporate in their approach.

What if there was a third, better option? Something that brings advantages of close in-office collaboration but removes the biggest flaws of on-site setup?

Traditional office monolith

The way we used to work in the recent past has structured our cities in a very specific way.

City center with tall, glass office buildings, full of stressed people in suites. Entire districts crowded by day, and completely dead and empty by night. Barely anyone lives there because the entire area is designed for office workers (or tourists), not for average people and families.

Bedroom districts or suburbs filled with houses and apartment buildings, where nothing is happening because in the morning everybody goes to the centre to work and gets back in the late evening

Those two are connected by the never-ending river of cars, where people are stuck in traffic, losing years of their lives

This model is as old as the Industrial Revolution. The technology has changed, factory workers are now vastly replaced by hippie frontend devs with their Starbucks coffees but the model stayed the same.

What if we changed it a little? Let’s break our monolithic office and change it to…

Distributed offices

Why do you need a single office, in the most expensive part of the city, forcing everyone to live nearby or commute crazy hours? So that it’s equally inconvenient for everyone to go there? So that company can pay crazy rent for it?

That made sense when there was a single factory in the city where all the workers had to be every day to keep the production running. But in the modern, digitalised world?

Local-first setup

What if instead of one, big, single office, the company had several smaller offices, spread evenly over the city or country, closer to the areas where employees live? Instead of a single office in a capital city, have several ones in smaller cities. Instead of a single office in the city centre, several smaller offices in various city districts.

Smaller offices, designed for close collaboration and integration of teams, connected with each other with teleconference equipment. A place where employees can easily commute to, as they live nearby, meet with their colleagues, work together and integrate.

Having an office nearby, just a few minutes by bus or bike from your home would greatly motivate people to go there and meet with each other as such a setup reduces the main friction of going to the office: dreaded commute time. It would create and foster a local community, actually building relationships between the people who live and work there.

Spreading the office spaces more evenly across the city (or country) can help revive local communities and the economy. Places and activities that are now typical for central districts, like cafes, restaurants, and pubs, could be created around those new, distributed working hubs, resulting in a more sustainable city structure.

As a cherry on top, it would be probably cheaper both for the company and the workers. Not being forced to buy or rent properties in the most expensive areas can be a huge money saver. And let’s not forget the talent pool you unlock by reaching those new places.

Collaboration space

The purpose of such an office will shift. Instead of a factory, where people have to work on the assembly line, it’s a place where people go when they want to collaborate. They don’t go there to sit in mundane meetings or in front of their screens for the whole day. They go there to have a brainstorming session with their team. To draft their OKRs. To plan the architecture of their system. To run a retro session about how their team works. To have lunch together and bond with each other.

To do all those things that benefit from human contact and direct communication. Things that are vastly less effective (and enjoyable) when done via Zoom.

Such offices would be designed to inspire and create space where creative juices flow. Something vastly different from soulless open space.

Easier than it sounds?

You can say that distributed offices will create some problems. And you are probably right. With such a setup, teams are not collocated in a single place while a monolithic office forces everyone to be in the same place at the same time.

This is true to some extent. The idea of distributed offices is a middle ground between traditional on-site and fully remote setups. It aims to find a balance, between different pros and cons. You still need to have a way to collaborate with people in different locations. But, when you think about it, most of the companies are already doing it.

When was the last time you had everyone that you worked with in the same office? In my case, I don’t recall such a situation. For at least the last 15 years, even though I’ve been mostly working in the office, I’ve always had someone, in my team or working closely with my team, in a different location, different office. The truth is that bigger companies already have offices, clients, or teams in different cities and countries, and you do collaborate with them remotely.

When you consider that, on-site, monolithic office work is a lie we tell ourselves. You commute to the office, to have a remote meeting with someone that is also in the office, but in a different country. Pointless.

So let’s embrace distribution, let’s embrace local communities, let’s allow people to get together easily, in their local area, to collaborate, to meet, to bond with each other. All this while reducing commute time, cutting office costs and fostering local economies. What’s stopping us?

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