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New mobile lifestyles are spawning collaborative work spaces that encourage greater innovation, as Birgit Lohmann, chief executive and editor-inchief at designboom, discovers

11 min read

From global real-time communications to creative tools of production, mobile technology already provides many of the services for which centralised office spaces were once needed, making collaboration and exchange instantaneous and reliable regardless of geographic location. As a result, people are increasingly working from home, trains and coffee shops instead of cubicles.

The average workday is getting longer, but the flow of a typical day is being rewritten. Longer hours means less time for conversations and independent learning outside work, so early adopters of the new work-lifestyle are making these things part of their official job description.

Some people are choosing to become freelancers and part-time employees for the freedom it offers to pursue a range of personal interests; others fall into it as a result of circumstance or job availability. Regardless, this is the reality of a growing percentage of the population and it is changing cultural conceptions about what it means to go to work.

Indy Johar

Indy Johar

Working for yourself doesn’t have to mean working by yourself. Throughout the world, there is a growing shift towards more conscious and community-based behaviour, foreshadowed by the recent history within the arts and academia of an emphasis on interdisciplinary exchange and communication. When individuals create their own career paths, their work benefits from a collaborative approach and it takes a certain kind of workspace to foster these effective exchanges.

72% of people looking for work at the Hub Westminster find it

London architect Indy Johar has carried out an extensive study into socially driven sustainable urban organization. The intersections of culture and technology have contributed to a mindset of “own less, use more”, he explains, and the concept of “ecosystems” fits the contemporary landscape of work much better than the centralised model of decades past.

“We’re effectively going to see the corporate model become the uncorporate model,” he predicts, with large companies breaking down into separate but interwoven branches for their physical infrastructure, investment and learning platforms. As a result, there is a pressing need to open up the office, moving away from divided departments and cubicles, and towards what he describes as a “fluid mix” wherein executives, start-ups, suppliers and talent-makers are all part of a larger ecosystem.

Hub Bogota co-working space

Hub Bogota co-working space

In this landscape, access to networks is fundamental. Johar is one of two co-founders of the Hub Westminster in London and director of the Global Hub Association, a network of independent local community spaces, where members can work and collaborate not only with one another, but with like-minded people in hubs throughout the world.

“I think Hub is a missing link,” he says. “What we’re trying out is how do you create an ‘uncorporate’ platform that allows for economies of scale to work with economies of scope in different ways?”

Providing diverse work areas, electricity and other needs in a communal setting, the Hub environment is designed to foster unexpected conversations and connections. Artists, entrepreneurs, businessmen and other individuals, from an endless range of backgrounds, careers and interests, sit together at open tables, prepare food in an in-house kitchen or draw up ideas together over coffee and at whiteboards.

Interior of Hub Singapore

Interior of Hub Singapore

03-HUB-singapore_credit Ian Chia

Some Hub members are employed, others – nicknamed “dockers” at the Westminster space – come to the Hub looking for work and, as Johar calculates, they usually find it – an estimated 72 per cent of those searching find a job from within the Hub Westminster alone.

These spaces give participants access to ambitious, change-driven conversations that are difficult to cultivate in spheres of everyday life. Special events and regular programming create a community whose members learn from each other, and expand the possibilities and impact of individual projects.

The initiative was designed to harness the power of networks to address the difficulties of collaboration and provide the kind of support structure that is required to translate good ideas into real social change. From Seattle to São Paulo, Singapore and Rome to Tel Aviv, over 30 hubs spanning five continents are in full use with membership services, events and programming. Twenty additional hub initiatives are already under development; within five years, the network is expected to comprise more than 100 platforms worldwide.

The hubs also work together to expand ventures, whether it’s Hub Zurich members creating a local offshoot of a project founded at the Vienna site or the Milan Hub hosting a consortium of environmental experts from hubs across Europe.

While the Periamma project works out of Copenhagen to develop sustainable school projects in India, Africa and Thailand, the Boulder Hub’s Unreasonable Institute accelerates ambitious ideas from across the world through a star-studded fellowship programme each year in Colorado.

In Bucharest, Veiozaarte works to document and archive the independent and avant-garde arts scene in Romania, preserving for the world the works and vision that might otherwise be lost to time.

And it’s not all non-profits and start-ups. As Paul Lloyd Robson works from Denmark to help Seattle-based Microsoft reduce its environmental footprint, the Skyway Foundation at the Rotterdam Hub creates immersive multisensory artistic experiences for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

Workers in Hub Singapore

Workers in Hub Singapore

What hub members tend to have in common is their drive for sustainable impact and positive social change. What varies from hub to hub is the particular focuses of their events and classes, which change based on the culture and interests of members, and what kinds of initiatives make their home at the workspaces, a question that is highly dependent on the needs and ethos of the local community.

The network’s locally distributed, globally connected model allows initiatives to provide solutions relevant to any project scope, from the hyper-local, like São Paulo’s Carbono Zero bicycle courier company, to the decidedly global. Interested communities need only register their details with the organisation to begin the process of founding their own hubs; a new site officially joins the global network after a peer review and favourable vote from each existing hub.

While Johar is catalysing change, mapping a plan for how we shift from “I” to “we”, many other independent but exclusively local co-working spaces are cropping up alongside the hub community in major cities across the planet, most exceptionally in rapidly growing centres in South America and China. Just one of a number of such hubs in Colombia, for example, is the Bogota Co-working Centre, designed by Germany’s ZA architects.

For years the notion of an open office plan was hypothesised to be distracting, preventing knowledge workers from doing their jobs efficiently. But a few studies oppose these kinds of ideas. In our visits to hubs, we found that people are very respectful of their fellow workers, learning quickly to tune out the chatter that doesn’t interest them, and perk up and join in when they overheard something relevant.

All the hubs are conceptualised as blank canvases, the focus is on how people live in the space and what they do with their time there. Everybody is asked to contribute and is motivated to bring all kinds of personal creations to make the work area, even in the sprawling open collaborative areas, feel uniquely theirs.

Besides developing the Hub Westminster, Johar is also co-founder of 00:/, a creative office built around a group of socially engaged architects and based at the Hub. Operating at the forefront of new technologies, they are the authors of the open-source CNC-cut furniture used at the HUB and the developers of WikiHouse, a downloadable open-source house project. Their forward-thinking furniture is on exhibition as part of the show, The Future is Here, at the London Design Museum (until October 29). Microcosms of the work world in themselves, the hubs are a perfect place to study human behaviour and watch out for the next trend in office furniture that can both offer comfort and boost productivity.

It takes a certain kind of workspace to foster effective exchanges

The hubs are comprised of three types of environments – collaborative, semi-private and private. There are moments when an individual needs to work quietly alone or a small group needs to have a working session that might be distracting to others in the collaborative space. Semi-private areas are typically equipped with conference chairs, high-back sofas and projection screens. A few private areas are available for one-on-one conversations or personal phone calls.

The North American company Haworth, one of the world’s “big three” office furniture makers and industry leaders, has been a partner of the Hub Westminster since its foundation. The company has been pioneering a number of design initiatives in Europe through participation in Hub programmes, collaboration with the Hub team and active exchange of research information.

Henning Figge, Haworth’s vice president Europe, says: “Traditional office furniture was perceived for static days in front of a monitor. The question of how to design an efficient, healthy workspace has thus become a lot more complicated, but also a lot more liberating.

“We are now taking into account the ergonomic needs of workers who might easily be simultaneously scrolling through the latest tweets via smartphone, skyping with a business partner on their tablets and reviewing data for the conversation from a desktop screen.” On average, about two thirds of workers use at least two different devices each day, ranging from desktop monitors to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The diversity of new needs means that office furniture manufacturers are also for the first time not restricted to international standards and regulations regarding the precise dimensions and production specifications of chairs and desks. But the enduring effects of the new world of work will extend far beyond that. The design of office furniture and environments is equally shaped by changes within office culture, and its increasing emphasis on collaboration and communication.

The new ways of working are also creating space for all kinds of innovation and entrepreneurial ventures in the more traditional corporate sphere. In America, the start-up Breather is combining the business models of Zipcar, Airbnb and the hub into a service that lets on-the-go workers, today’s global nomads, rent out private office space for 30 minutes, a few hours or the entire day.

A user can find the nearest Breather locations through a GPS-enabled smartphone app and reserve a room. The system automatically debits a credit card stored on file and the person can enter the space with his or her smartphone through keyless entry technology by the American company Lockitron. With this service, Breather hopes to address the needs of today’s mobile worker, who might need to meet a client, make a phone call, charge a dead device, take a powernap or have a quick quiet place to work anytime, anywhere.

These spaces give participants access to ambitious, change-driven conversations that are difficult to cultivate in spheres of everyday life

It’s a service that your average freelancer or hubber might very well want to make use of, although it’s a business model that remains distinctly rooted in the old, privatised world of work compared to the collaborative vision of the hub and its offshoot co-working initiatives.

No one’s saying that sprinting to the nearest hub is your only chance of survival in this new world of work and the quantity of caffeine required for an average “shift” as a freelancer may be enough to give many constitutions the shakes. But the reality is that, in an interconnected real-time global landscape with a rapidly broadening conception of office culture, we’re learning more than ever before about the vast potentials and basic needs of both our societies and ourselves. Now it’s time to really get to work.

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