This month, I am celebrating an anniversary – 26 years of residence at our home in St Albans, a small city just north of London. When we moved in shortly after getting married, I had no inkling that we would be there for so long.
26 years is a long time. Our road is fairly unremarkable in that it is a typical Victorian/Edwardian street in St Albans full of terraced houses and lined with cars. It is remarkable though for the community that lives in it – we borrow and lend items and skills; we babysit children; we feed each other’s animals and water gardens when on holiday; we have lived through births, deaths and marriages; we host a Living Advent Calendar at Christmas; we live through house renovations and skips in the road; we take in others parcels; we collectively whinge about the parking. For those of us in the UK of a certain age, it puts me in mind of Mr Benn living along Festive Road, surrounded by the ordinariness of suburban life.
In a quarter of a century, our patterns of work have also drastically changed. Initially I commuted up to London every day, but then started to work all over the UK, Europe and beyond collaborating with global colleagues online more frequently than face-to-face. And we’ve lived and worked abroad and rented the house whilst away. But although our work styles have changed, our infrastructure has barely kept up. Yes, we have broadband, and I now have a little office in my converted loft room.
There has been one local attempt to rewire some of these physical connections in light of the changing nature of work. Silicon Abbey was conceived by a local entrepreneur, Torsten de Reise, as a way of creating community with like-minded digital people. Ironically, it took a networking event in London for me to find out about Silicon Abbey from someone who lives locally. It turns out there are a lot of folks professionally involved in cities that live in St Albans! So, the question we then had was, where do we find one another when we are all working from home?
And so, the idea for a local co-working hub was conceived and eventually set up by Silicon Abbey just as I returned from our second stint abroad. This was initially housed in the cricket pavilion in Clarence Park and when the weather got cold, relocated to the George Street Canteen, an independent cafe in the city, who happily housed us in their upper room for one day a week. The difference for me between those two locations was immense – in thinking about whether I go to the co-working space to work or stay at home, the attraction of being in the middle of the high street meant company that day as well as being able to do a few jobs in the town. The experiment came and went but an enduring thought remained with me that co-working could be an important part of the future high street.
In 2012 when I worked for Microsoft, I co-authored a paper entitled ‘The Anywhere Working City’. The principles of that paper still hold true. The digital enablement of knowledge work giving rise to ‘Anywhere Working’ and the co-working revolution fuelling the notion that ‘work’ is a missing ingredient of the high street mix. Over the past decade or so many companies have introduced flexible working and as a society we have become more comfortable with the notion of ‘working from home’. However, with the pervasiveness of technology today, the polar extremes of ‘working in an office’ and ‘working from home’ do not do justice to the myriad of ways, roles and places where we could work productively for our benefit, our employers benefit and the benefit of society in general. Benefits which include reduced commuting, flexibility for those with caring responsibilities and spending more time within our communities.
In 26 years of being a St Albans resident, so much has changed in the world of work and our street. We still whinge about parking, but the community that supports us every day is the one constant that keeps us all there.
It feels like the conditions are right for co-working on the high street to become a reality, but it needs a framework to scale. I’ve decided to conduct an experiment under the name of ‘WorkLocal’ for the next 12 months or so. Watch this space for further developments and please get in touch if you are interested in becoming part of the journey.