This post is a small review of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) / CSCW (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work) literature beyond the traditional, corporate office building. I cut it from my PhD literature review for space, so it is now here that these words find their home.
Beyond the traditional corporate office building, nomadic workers (or ‘digital nomads’) are highly mobile individuals without an office or set place of work. Su and Mark (2008) undertook an ethnographic study with a group of such workers, who may have greater difficulty maintaining social contact with colleagues, uncovering strategies employed in remaining connected and securing access to resources. Travelling to another site to meet face-to-face might increase a colleague’s social awareness of a nomadic worker, and “face-to-face contact leads colleagues to be more responsive to their emails and phone calls.”
Further, as nomadic work may also lead to less opportunity for unplanned interaction with colleagues, inhabiting a cubicle in a well-trafficked location can result in opportunity for spontaneous interaction: “there’s a networking advantage of just being there and being seen.” The authors develop a number of design suggestions from this work, including “designing for interaction” such that nomads are aware of the work locations of colleagues, or even “dynamically informing [them] on the optimal place to situate themselves at a site to informally interact with others.”
While Su and Mark’s work focuses on offices, the digital nomads of 2020 work from much more diverse locations. Ciolfi et al. (2020) examine working from home, noting that home working necessarily involves the re-negotiation and re-configuration of both the space and the identities and roles of those undertaking it. The re-configuration of the space changes the place, too, for example kitchen tables becoming a site of work as well as of family meals. Even those lucky enough to have a discrete room for a home office do not spend their full time using it, perhaps reserving it for intensive work, or in the case of one participant being “pushed out of there now because [the children] do their stuff in there.”
This can create tension with partners and dependents, the role and labour of parenting interacting with the demands of work. Home-working requires what Ciolfi et al describe as an active process of making and re-making of the home workplace, a continuous re-configuration of resources which changes “household relations and understandings of home as a ‘private’ space of potential respite from work demands.” This is also true of nomadic workers, as Lee et al. (2019) demonstrate through their analysis of the /r/digitalnomad forum on Reddit. There is certainly a tension in how the practices of the home intersect with those of work, and a gap in the literature in examining how homes become places of work.
Co-working spaces are another class of workplace beyond the office, as Swezey and Vertesi (2019) discuss through their New York City ethnography of WeWork, a co-working space provider. These workplaces emulate the neoliberal culture of modern technology companies both physically and spatially, incorporating amenities such as kitchens and ping-pong tables. Many workers here do not work on the same project or even for the same company, but benefit from the “purposeful design of an open workspace” which acts to support a unique community with opportunities for networking and serendipitous interaction.
Yet, as Swezey and Vertesi point out, such co-working spaces are purposefully ‘multi-platial’: a hybrid space where workers are “neither fully at home nor fully at work,” combining the community of the workplace with the amenities of home. Expression of identity through the personalisation of space is key within this, one worker’s desk being “decorated with collectable action figures, Darth Vader memorabilia, Legos, […] as well as his computer and work files.” Co-workers navigate this platial multiplicity, the “decoupling of workspace and workplace”, and the practice of their work is intertwined with the unique characteristics of the co-working space. That said, commercial co-working spaces are not unique as places where workers come together, though their investors and financiers may perhaps like you to think it so.
Libraries also support co-work, and Bilandzic et al. (2013) look at how technology might better foster social interaction in these spaces. The authors claim that workers in the library “usually regard each other as strangers. People mostly work within their “individual bubbles,” thus missing opportunities for serendipitous social learning. A small user study was conducted with ‘Gelatine’, a public display system which attempts to make visible one’s co-workers in the library in order to curate a shared ‘sense of place’, similar in many ways to Bødker and Christiansen’s (2006) aforementioned ‘social awareness’. A digital ‘check-in’ enables the sharing of one’s interests and expertise on the displays. Although it should be noted that some workers used the library for isolated work and did not seek interaction, the authors report that Gelatine gave an invitation and implied consent for starting conversations around shared or sought expertise.
On the surface, public libraries and for-profit co-workspaces appear a diametric opposite: a community space for individuals versus a privately-owned space for groups. There also seems to exist a striking class entanglement in this, favouring the better-off: a silicon-valleyesque monetisation of space. WeWork and similar companies trade on the value of ‘networking’, providing the community as a platform and marketing it as a selling point.
That said, Lee et al. (2019) draw a distinction in digital nomads’ perceptions of these two classes of space through Oldenburg’s (1989) three-place typology. Co-working spaces blend ‘second’ (work) and ‘third’ (social) places, but the library is strongly perceived as a ‘second’ place, a workplace. There is obviously a need for such blended spaces, and although there is scope for technology to address this, we must be wary of technosolutionism. It may simply be that if libraries were better funded, co-workspace could be provided without the necessity of (energy-using) public displays or for-profit workspace brokers.
If the popularity of co-work spaces is due to their multi-platial blending of home and work, then perhaps there is opportunity for technology to assist this in traditional offices? Gallacher et al. note the often ‘drab’ utilitarian nature of office buildings, undertaking a study into how playful technology might ‘lighten up’ the workplace (Gallacher et al., 2015). ‘Mood Squeezer’ was a public installation in one such office building, consisting of a set of coloured balls (the ‘SqueezeBox’) and an LED dancefloor visualisation. In aiming to raise the mood through their playful intervention, the authors found that it provided an opportunity for employees to take time out of their workday for mindful self-reflection, and encouraged interaction between colleagues with increased opportunity for openness around their moods and feelings. The authors acknowledge that the novelty of the intervention no doubt had an effect on this, but playful interventions yet have a role in creating a fun and light-hearted workplace, the positive productivity and wellbeing impacts of which are very much worthy of consideration.
Mark et al. (2014) investigated the effects of online and offline social interactions on mood in the workplace, logging a range of online (email, Facebook, app/document switching) factors, as well as capturing offline face-to-face interactions using a wearable camera. Results included a finding that face-to-face interactions can result in an immediate positive effect on mood. That said, the sample size (n=32) does seem small for a quantitative statistical study, particularly when drawing such broad conclusions as “females use FB [Facebook] over twice as long on average per day as males.” The paper says little about the job roles of these workers and how that might affect social media use over gendered factors.
How work practices affect our mood is becoming more relevant than ever considering the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, where many of us are working at home, interacting with colleagues solely through video-chat and email.
Bilandzic, M., Schroeter, R. and Foth, M. (2013), “Gelatine: making coworking places gel for better collaboration and social learning”, Proceedings of the 25th Australian Computer-Human Interaction Conference: Augmentation, Application, Innovation, Collaboration (OzCHI ’13), pp. 427–436.
Bødker, S. and Christiansen, E. (2006), “Computer support for social awareness in flexible work”, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 1–28.
Ciolfi, L., Gray, B. and Pinatti de Carvalho, A.F. (2020), “Making Home Work Places”, Proceedings of the 18th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: The International Venue on Practice-Centred Computing on the Design of Cooperation Technologies, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 1–16.
Gallacher, S., O’Connor, J., Bird, J., Rogers, Y., Capra, L., Harrison, D. and Marshall, P. (2015), “Mood Squeezer”, Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing – CSCW ’15, pp. 891–902.
Lee, A., Toombs, A.L., Erickson, I., Nemer, D., Ho, Y.S., Jo, E. and Guo, Z. (2019), “The social infrastructure of Co-spaces: Home, work, and sociable places for digital nomads”, Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 3 No. CSCW, available at:https://doi.org/10.1145/3359244.
Mark, G., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M. and Johns, P. (2014), “Capturing the Mood: Facebook and Face-to- Face Encounters in the Workplace”, 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, ACM, pp. 1082–1094.
Oldenburg, R. (1989), The Great Good Place– Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 1st ed., Marlowe & Company, New York.
Su, N.M. and Mark, G. (2008), “Designing for nomadic work”, Proceedings of the 7th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems – DIS ’08, ACM Press, New York, New York, USA, pp. 305–314.
Swezey, C. and Vertesi, J. (2019), “Working apart, together: The challenges of co-work”, Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 3 No. CSCW, available at:https://doi.org/10.1145/3359306.