Workspaces are under the microscope again but how are tech workers affected by the flexible workspaces and sharing culture of startups?
The office petri dish
In times of epidemic, the familiar can become unknown. Media are full of images showing the 'normal' order of things inverted because of coronavirus - face masks in intimate personal settings, deserted traffic intersections, major sporting events in empty stadiums.
The workplace has, for many of us lately, also undergone a transformation. In these times of heightened anxiety, the slick modern office becomes a petri dish for whatever microbes your colleagues are carrying. Door handles, keyboards, bathroom taps, coffee machines: all are surfaces on which germs linger longer than you’d ever want to know about. Studies take macabre glee in shocking us with how, under the microscope, our desks are really alien landscapes of filth.
Contagion and the global
What is disturbing is the realisation of how involved in each other’s lives we are, in ways we are not accustomed to seeing.
Cultural theorist of the outbreak narrative, Priscilla Wald, has written about how viruses have become a popular way to imagine this proximity in the age of globalisation. As we track the movement of a virus, from Patient Zero outwards, the epidemiological detective work becomes a narrative of our era's interconnectedness. The smallness of the world, and proximity of the oter, is tangible in the spread of germs from one place to another.
As Wald writes, these connections are scary because we cannot control or avoid them: “the interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” In the global age, we have become increasingly aware of how this community includes all of us.
Blurring the lines at work
A Financial Times report last year suggested modern offices encourage dirty habits. As young companies and startups put more emphasis on personal comfort and ‘being yourself’ at work, it is more difficult to differentiate personal space from shared. Social norms around hygeine might be laxer - with consequences for those afraid of germs.
While it’s easy to fall into caricatures of flip-flops and bean bags, it's not uncommon for startups to give workers areas to lounge and nap, or to bring their pets. This level of comfort is part of the flexibility which workspaces are seeking to embrace, by blurring the boundaries of 'at-work' and 'at-home' behaviour.
For some, this can affect hygeine. “It’s a cliché but where you have younger employees, often with a more laid-back attitude, the workspace can get messy," said a tech worker at a New York startup. "Shared areas don’t get cleaned properly, especially bins and toilets. That’s my experience anyway.”
The pivot towards coworking and fully agile offices is also breaking down boundaries between personal and shared workspace. In offices where there is no fixed seating plan, and workers can switch between desks as they like, there is no ‘my’ desk; there is only the desk of others and a risk of undesired contact.
Beyond just seating arrangements, community and sharing are keywords for startup culture. There is a specific drive towards a shared, team spirit that extends beyond regular office structures Common rituals include daily huddles, Friday beers, high fives and pizza platters. We Work is just a recent example - a vision constantly articulated in the branded third-person plural.
This drive for community necessarily brings us more into contact and as a result more risk. If success, in the mantra of many a startup, is always shared then it is the very flipside of the contagion we fear.
This awareness is already causing shifts in how startups do their business. For instance, there is likely to be a fall in non-urgent meetings and team events.
“Many of our customers are startups, who use our platform to book spaces for their work events,” said Julian Jost of Spacebase. “So far, bookings in Europe and North America have been unaffected but we have seen effects in Hong Kong. We’re braced for some uncertainty in the short-term but remain confident things will calm down.”
Coworking or quarantine
It is also a concern for startups and freelancers based in coworking spaces. Coronavirus recently spread to Berlin, where it caused the shock cancellation of world's biggest travel tradeshow, ITB.
Users of Betahaus, one of the city’s most popular coworking spaces, were resigned about these creeping effects. “We all did some research about corona and we’re trying to be well-informed and not to create chaos” said one freelancer Lidi.
But when coworking is no longer feasible - at what point do people check out entirely?
“Maybe there would come a moment when I would stay home - we haven’t reached it yet but it’s in the back of all our minds,” said another developer. “We don’t want to share everything. I notice today the space is less packed than usual.”
Tech workers of the world - stay home!
Clearly, the flexibility of the startup office also gives many tech workers the chance to work from home. At giants like Google and Twitter, ‘stay home’ is already the mantra for their global workforce.
Mario Da Deppo has worked remotely as a senior developer for the past 5 years. He is based in Bologna, near the outbreak zones in northern Italy. “After some initial days of panic in quite some people, the situation is normalizing and I feel we're overcoming most irrational fears,” he explained.
He sees the upside of the current outbreak as an experiment in remote working for many outwith the tech industry, who otherwise have not been given a chance to try it. “I hope that this epidemic will make stakeholders more aware of the remote option, allowing in the future more people to try and do it.”
A pivot towards the home office may be the best way to avoid the invisible bugs of our tech workspaces.