Hot desking in hell: The workplace in the age of emergencies

As catastrophic weather events and pandemics disrupt our lives with disastrous effects, Sydney-based architect Don Albert considers where and how we will work in the future, by re-examining the past.


The 1994 Northridge Earthquake brought Los Angeles to its knees - Robert A. Eplett - FEMA Photo Library CC

Before digital nomadism and coworking became a thing, and years before the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to start rethinking our lifestyles, I first sat down at my drawing board at University of California’s (UCLA’s) School of Architecture. It was the spring of 1996 and Los Angeles was still shaken by the US$20bn Northridge earthquake that had crippled the freeway system just over a year before.


In that quake, 57 people died and it was a pivotal moment in Los Angeles for two reasons; firstly, it coincided with the CBD’s commercial decline with tenants looking for larger floor-plates and cheaper rents; secondly, it came at the most “opportune” time in terms of the business world’s uptake of the Internet.


Immediately after the earthquake, 60 per cent of local businesses failed because their staff could not get to work. Those that failed were largely small businesses, whereas the survivors; banks, government, and utility corporations, were forced to adopt the Internet – dial up no less ­– so that their data processing staff could work from home.


This phenomenon, as discussed in our urban design studio and reported in the media at the time, was key to the uptake of the Internet in Southern California and the decentralisation of its corporations, particularly in media and utilities.


Of course, the profound effects of the Internet would have blossomed anyway. Nevertheless, what the Northridge quake did, was force businesses to adopt a new way of working: remotely. The seeds of off-shore outsourcing and digital nomadism had been sown.


With the deepening of the Covid-19 pandemic currently worldwide we see a similar work-from-home trend emerging.


The Barrows building in Durban, South Africa - Photo Ronnie Levitan

While still a masters student at UCLA, in February of 1997 I was invited to participate in a competition for a new retail merchandising facility in my hometown Durban, South Africa. Run by a then start-up firm called Barrows, the brief called for a novel way of combining sales, design, prototyping and printing and metalwork production under one roof.


As the two-week deadline loomed couriering the boards on time would have been impossible, so I enquired if the submission could be made via the Internet. This was unheard of in 1997 but the organisers agreed and the winning submission was received via email, one picture at a time.


In the end, the full design process happened via remote control in a way now taken for granted. Emails were sent and faxes were exchanged! Despite architects working remotely since the days of Rome, the speed at which the design process must now run has increased to instant “real-time” feedback via software and cloud computing.


After graduation I returned to Durban and was offered space in the Barrows building in order to start up my first two companies and to collaborate with Barrows in the establishment of their e-commerce systems.


Sharing the boardroom, eating at the canteen, hanging out on the balcony, playing foosball, rolling around on pilates balls and having an MTV blaring television as the receptionist, this was the very essence of coworking, which we were doing in 1999, years before the term was coined or turned into a multi-billion dollar real-estate phenomenon by the now somewhat wobbly WeWork. Nevertheless, the lessons remain relevant today.


Building as a proxy for the brand


But the Barrows building was not only innovative in terms of its execution and function. It also became a proxy for the Barrows brand during the initial dotcom boom when the value of a “bricks and mortar” presence was being questioned.


While one could argue that buildings like the Hoover Building in the UK, the Chrysler Building in New York City or Sydney’s recently converted Paramount Building are good examples of industrial buildings that remain as enduring proxies for their brands, what was different about Barrows, especially in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, was that all of its functions were to happen within one structure showcasing its flattening of social and corporate hierarchy to prospective clients.


The Chrysler Building endures as a proxy for the brand - Photo benontherun.com licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This move was a challenge to the status quo that was more familiar with sales headquarters in CBD’s and factories on the outskirts, or, campus-styled parks exemplified by Walter Gropius’ Fagus Factory in Germany, or Eero Saarinen’s landmark General Motors Technical Centre campus in Michigan USA, where management, design engineers and labourers would rarely rub shoulders in the same canteen line.


Such “modern” campuses are the progeny of the granddaddy of all industrial estates, Trafford Park in Manchester: the world’s first, and largest remaining industrial estate introduced to the world at the same time that Ebenezer Howard was promoting his Garden City Movement, which called for clear distinctions between housing and industry, separated by green spaces.


A lesson for our times is what was critical to Trafford Park’s success, contrary to Howard’s Garden City argument; a village was planned right in the middle of it.


Built by Westinghouse, the village was a key condition for its purchase into the estate, and this cuts to the core of what is ecologically and socially responsible. Furthermore, the community was charged by the charming Trafford Park Hotel as a social hub and accommodation provider for business travellers. While most of the original factories are gone, the hotel remains, and after lying dormant for eight years is currently being recycled into a boutique hotel seeking to cater to the sports and culture fans now drawn to the repositioned precinct.



The Trafford Park Hotel is positioned in the centre of the world's first industrial estate - Photo circa 1905

Who doesn’t want to walk to work?


Indeed at Trafford Park Village we see the age-old logic of living as close to work as possible in its foundation, but there are better examples starting at the hunter-gather and subsistence levels – which are about as ecologically sensible as they could be – to the universal phenomenon of a shopkeeper who lives above his trade, to the weavers’ cottages of pre-industrial England (from whence the term “cottage industry” is derived), to communities within monasteries and then, a really unique one, the most intact medieval street in Europe, the Vicar’s Close, in Wells, Somerset.


Vicars Close, Wells AD 1430 - Photo by Amanda44 Wiki CC

But back to late-20th-century-USA, which was anything but quaint…


By the end of the 1950s, General Motors’ marketing of and catering to the United State’s obsession with the automobile saw vast tracts of land subdivided into dormitory suburbs throughout the nation, particularly in Southern California where the right to live miles away from logical places of work was sold as the American Dream.


"1956 General Motors Pontiac Catalina Advertisement Time April 2 1956" by SenseiAlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Indeed, the universally adopted ideal of “individualistic” freedom, including by Australians, has contributed to the socio-ecological crisis we now know to be climate change as the desire for oil fuelling motorised transport grew – in the amount of around 20 per cent of greenhouse gasses (GHG) by 2014.


Not only were people commuting further to work, general consumption of electricity grew thanks to newfangled consumer goods such as televisions, fridges, vacuum machines, air-conditioning, heating, swimming pools, hair-dryers and so on, the use of which currently contributes to a hefty 50 per cent of global GHG emissions.


So really, Westinghouse, Hoover and General Motors, exemplars of workplace design as they may have been, were also unwitting collaborators in the climate change mess we are in right now. Of course, they are not solely to blame.


Enter the Jet Age…


Nothing epitomised the apex of the 20th century more than the arrival of the Boeing 707 in 1958 which meant affordable air travel for the western middle classes. Tourism’s boom into far-flung destinations was immediate and the 707 would carry millions of passengers to “exotic” destinations, creating job opportunities for locals and foreign investment in places that did not have commodities to sell or inherent “industrial location” or “trade port” characteristics.

"N707JT" by joseluiscel (Aviapics) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Formerly agrarian island communities like Bali, Barbados, Jamaica, Malta, Iceland and larger countries like Thailand and Croatia have since come to rely on air-travel to bring in the lion’s share of their economies.


The World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2018 Report pegs the international travel industry at just over 10 per cent of the world’s GDP, with one in 10 people being employed in the industry. With a sector growth rate higher than global GDP growth for the last eight consecutive years, and one in five new jobs being created in the world, we can see a profound shift from the consumer economy of the 1950s into the experience economy of the new millennium.


This is being driven by two key trends: firstly the rise of low-cost airlines, and secondly, the smart-phone and social media, in particular online booking channels like Airbnb and TripAdvisor that are bringing the sharing economy to travellers, and of course the Internet’s most successful lifestyle marketing platform, the multi-billion dollar economy of Instagram.


Because Insta…


Assisted by low-cost airlines, app-driven tourism to picturesque locations like the Maldives is supporting industries such as construction, transportation, engineering, food, hospitality, cleaning services, retail, waste management, education, training, infrastructure and health-care.


But it’s not just holiday making. In a recent survey reported by Forbes, 4.8 million United States citizens described themselves as “digital nomads”, which allows them to work location independently while ticking off the boxes on the hippy trail, updating their Instagram accounts and inspiring thousands of others to do the same. This phenomenon is fuelling an explosion of hospitality-driven growth in places like Bali, Byron Bay, Costa Rica and more recently, Portugal.


Conservative estimates put the “semi-permanent” Australian expat community in Bali at around 10,000 people – when I was living there the number often spoken of was 30,000 – and many of those people are operating Australian-born brands such as Deus Ex-Machina, Souq and Rebel&Stone, tapping into the creative talent that Bali’s inherently artistic community can supply at much cheaper rates than Australia could ever provide.


In identifying this new nomadic market, I personally developed the Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat in Canggu, Bali, which provided creative space and assistance for aspiring recording artists, painters, film makers, creative writers, and of course yoga and surf students. A Bauhaus in the tropics, as it were.


Our little boutique hotel fostered poolside networking beneath the palm-trees, inspiring other entrepreneurs and indeed our local neighbours who were keen to build similar establishments or start their own coworking spaces such as Dojo.


The Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat - Photo: Justin Boyd

Blending of business and leisure, and saving space…


Indeed, looking at any number of recent coworking spaces in Sydney, and at Mirvac’s recently completed FJMTStudio-designed Australian Technology Park building for Commonwealth Bank, an intentional blending of business and leisure is happening through hospitality-inspired spaces.


Although driven by the need to reduce dormant real estate in the form of unmanned desks, nowadays we have come to expect our workspaces to offer a series of informal, lush, hospitality-driven experiences for more casual interaction as compensation for the indignity of “hot desking”.


After all we may not meet face-to-face that often, but when we do, could we at least do it in an enriching environment?


AngloAmerican Reinvention proposal Johannesburg - Soundspacedesign Architects

Fee…FIFO…Fum!


In a perfect storm of ever-increasing air travel, fly-in-fly-out labour, outsourcing, location independent businesses, amazon-dot-com type delivery systems, data storage centres, bitcoin mining and digital nomadism ramping up the world’s reliance on electricity and transportation, the spectre of climate change has snuck up on the globalist jamboree and poses some profound questions. Clearly, as the striking students and architects of Australia have declared, we cannot continue with business as usual.


Understanding the incendiary landscape that Australia is, even before climate change, and, despite our ossification as a nation of commodity extractors and farmers; a policy shift away from coal to renewable energy sources – as is underway in countries like China, Germany and Costa Rica – is both urgent and inevitable. And so is a shift to a more balanced economy.


Where to for the work place?


Given that IPCC GHG emission targets are three times too low, and will likely never be met anyway, climate change catastrophes are expected to disrupt our day-to-day lives more often. It’s foreseeable then that businesses would want to decrease their reliance on centralised workforces and/or relocate to places less prone to heatwaves, bushfires, cyclones, floods, droughts, and inundation from the sea.


This is a multi-partisan emergency for national defence and urban management as well as the general public and business.


Australians are resourceful and pioneering, and we must embrace the climate change challenges that we face, especially the shift to clean energy jobs and the idea that some of us may need to resettle en mass to more hospitable places and perform in jobs not yet invented. Civilisation as we know it is going to change radically, social grants will be under extreme pressure (if they exist at all), and a shift to a neo-feudal way of life for millions and millions is inevitable.


In tandem with this, better work-life balance and more gender-equitable home duties are increasingly important to the working public, so it’s also easy to see why 25 per cent of Australian staff would want more flexibility in their ways of working too.


In the future we will see the nature of work changing: more reliance upon AI; more automation; less manual labour; more growth in the experience economy, transient accommodation and hospitality; more cottage-industry in terms of localised food production; less brick-and-mortar retail; more task-based collaboration; more emergency, health and care services; more mixed-use developments out of harm’s way; and finally, new settlements with guaranteed fresh water supply catering to a new class of refugee, the domestic and international climate change refugee.


New places of work will be: located closer to public transportation; implanted into existing dormitory suburbs; be attached to coliving spaces; designed with more flexibility and concern for lifecycle costs and energy consumption; provide an opportunity for urban farming; enhance community interaction with child-care and other social support.

Inevitably these new workplaces will provide for localised solar power generation, rainwater harvesting and the myriad of innovative app-driven “crowd sourced” permaculture innovations that are yet to come.


Developers and tenants are beginning to demand an eco-social workplace design that valorises the employee through tangible spatial benefits, and innovative social support mechanisms in order to ease worker’s increasingly stressed-out lives.


Don Albert is a Fulbright Scholar, the founder of Climate Change Cities and the design principal at Soundspacedesign Architects, Sydney. This article contains edited excerpts from his forthcoming book on climate change and urbanism and originally appeared in the Fifth Estate.

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