A Vision Of A 15-Minute Workplace

Remote Work Apr 29, 2021

Author: Tom McCallum

Imagine for a moment a “15-minute Workplace” vision where a network is created that allows you to work no more than 15 minutes from home.

  • The idea of a “15-minute city”, a new urbanism idea was recently popularised last year by Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, with the idea that the area within a 15-minute walk you would be able to access six key components: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying.
  • Going back over twenty years, Camana Bay in Cayman anchored their development on the idea of “Live, Work and Play”, using a greenfield site for development.
  • More recently, It is exciting to see a transformative site be developed as a centrepiece of economic and community regeneration in the home town of the founder and driving force of the Halo project, Marie Macklin, similarly highlighting “Live, Work, Learn, Play“.
  • Also, over a decade ago Tony Hsieh took his proceeds from selling Zappos to bring life to his vision of urban redevelopment of DownTown Las Vegas, centred on: “Three C’s: collisions, co-learning, and connectedness”.

Now, while central Paris is almost perfectly suited to the 15-minute (walk) city idea, and while new urbanism developments such as Camana Bay and Halo and Downtown Project have an important place, I put it to you that a quiet transformation will happen before our eyes in the next few years, that of the “15-minute workplace“, where employers will seek to provide a place to work (outside the home) within 15 minutes walk/cycle/bus/tram (and yes, sometimes drive) of our homes.

This will occur within city neighbourhoods, yes, but I sense it will have the deepest and most transformative impact on the many millions of people who live in suburban and ex-urban “dormitory” towns where, sometimes for well over 100 years (since the dawn of railways) the majority of the populations have left to commute to the city and only make use of their surroundings on weekends.

On a personal level, I have actually moved to one such town late in 2020, at least in part to have “skin in the game” around this. In addition to having bought a house here, I plan to commit time and investment into the local economy as it (I believe) will surge forth in response to ideas such as the 15-minute workplace. In fact, in less than six months here the upsurge in such activity is already huge, very exciting to see!

Today I will expand on some thoughts specific to the 15-minute workspace idea, why it will happen and what the benefits will be. Later posts may talk about the sorts of opportunities that will arise in more detail. So let’s dive in to these themes:

  • What might the “anywhere” in #WFA look like?
  • The idea of a third space for #WFA
  • Creating a 15-minute Workplace
  • Layers of benefits of the 15-Minute Workplace

#WFA is the future – so what might “anywhere” look like?

Last year I got a little frustrated around the constant reference to #WFH or Work From Home, so started to talk about #WFA, or Work from Anywhere.

At the time, I was thinking more of primary options being a) the office, and b) home, with thoughts around hybrid working options such as 2 days at home, 3 in the office. In “Ask your people about #WFA“, I said:

#WFA (Work From Anywhere) absolutely includes working “at the office” as well as at home, “anywhere” includes those places. The distinction I seek to make is that once employers and employees fully embrace the concept of empowering and enabling working where we do our best work (wherever that is and whether with human face to face contact or not), then entire paradigms of work and place will change.

Core to that paragraph remains the idea of employers embracing empowering and enabling their people to do their best work, though at the time I was focussing on office and home.

Now, let us consider a third space, the idea of a workplace that is not “at home” and not “at the office”.

The idea of a third space.

In recent decades we have seen an acceleration of the concentration of population into urban areas, including their places of work. At the same time, availability of sufficiently fast internet covering 90%+ of populations in most developed countries, allied to easily affordable cloud based software, has meant that the opportunity to truly revolutionise where we do our work has been present for, I’d say, at least a decade.

However, humans can be slow to change behaviours, so it took the pandemic to force us into adapting to people working at home, almost overnight.

Now, coming out of this, the conversations we are hearing are mostly about to what extent people will go “back to the office”, with the choices typically in that binary space of x days per week in “the office”, allowing y days per week “at home”.

Now, what about a third space? Many people do not have suitable space at home, nor separation between work and home life dynamics (eg small children, shared accommodation etc). Beyond those specific physical issues, many people really like the structure and feel of leaving the house in the morning to “go to work”, then stopping work at the end of the day to “go home”. In fact, one client talked about this to me and I have them the idea of starting and finishing their work day (in a small study on the side of their house) by going for a fifteen minute walk in the neighbourhood at bth teh start and end of their working day before then walking back to the house, either to the study to start their day, or back to the main house to finish it. This created a separation for them.

All in all, here are three key reasons to consider a space away from the central office (and at the end of a commute, which for major cities like London can easily be over an hour each way every day. Amazing that we used to tolerate this!).

  • No suitable space/separation of work space at home
  • Desire to maintain separation and distance between work and home, including transition between them (eg the 15 minute walk idea)
  • In addition, what about the wish to talk to people at work, the random socialising, coffee table chat. Beyond that, space to collaborate as well as network, find serendipitous connections.

Creating a 15-minute workplace

Much as the whole idea of #WFA requires a mindset shift for employers away from “the office” as being the centre of all things, the idea of commuting into cities has been around for a very, very long time (over 150 years in the case of London, since the expansion of railways), with many towns literally springing up due to demand for suburban and ex-urban housing.

In the last decade and more, at the same time that expansion of high speed internet and cloud based services has (in theory, at least) created the possibility of working away from a central office, it has also eviscerated the traditional “high street” through a combination of online retail as well as an increase in working hours for many knowledge workers creating a negative impact on community and hospitality (eg reduction in numbers of “pubs” in the UK, which where historically key community gathering points at heart).

Walk down almost any high street now, particularly since the pandemic, and you see a repetition of bland stores that are less than appealing to draw people in, along with an increasing number of empty units.

What if, however, brave entrepreneurs bought or took on long leases on these currently distressed commercial spaces and turned them into local workplace “hubs”? Now let’s look at spaces such as pubs, public libraries, even church halls… typically empty during the days during the week, but what if they found entrepreneurial partners to breathe new life into them as workhubs?

One other massive change in high streets is the loss of high street retail banks, which have, around the developed world, been closing at a fast pace. Banks are currently stuck with lots of owned or leased high street properties they have no use for. However, at the same time the major banks have thousands of workers living within 15 minutes of those suburban and ex-urban high streets but who, at least prior to the pandemic, commuted away from those places to an office of that bank in a major city. How about the banks turning all or part of those spaces to hubs for their people? What if they then expand the use of those spaces to their customers as a benefit of being a customer?

The ideas start expanding, including one I talked to a founder about very recently, that of a business that, via an app, can act as a B2B intermediary between such work hub venues and the major employers that can provide access to them as a benefit to their staff.

The possibilities are almost endless for those who have the vision, noting though that this will take time and much education, including of city planners and regulators, of the general public, of major employers. However, so many have seen the benefits of #WFA in the pandemic that I see this as an inexorable movement, particularly when people see the benefits occurring for others and then themselves.

Layers of benefits

So now imagine you have ready access to a workplace within 15 minutes walk/cycle/bus/drive from your home. If you are employed, it is provided for you by your employer either free of charge or highly discounted, for you to use (say) 8-10 days per month as a “third space” to work at other than the company office or your home.

You leave the house in the morning and go there. Instead of the classic modern open plan space where people sit at open plan desks to do focussed work then book private rooms for meetings and to collaborate with others, the concepts are flipped. Focussed work is done in a number of small pods or offices, with larger spaces reserved for spaces to meet others, some private, some open.

I’m picturing a triple retail unit designed this way, with around 2000+ sf ft of space and likely around 80-100 “members” of which 20-30 may use it on any one day (it is a “third space” for most, they won’t be there that often. It will have great coffee, but for those who want more food and drink, it will either be on a high street where entrepreneurs will soon spring up seeing that market, or if the space is (say) in a rural or out of town space, pretty soon food trucks will start doing the rounds, making lunch deliveries (and typically via online ordering platforms to match customers to orders in advance).

I hope the picture is forming, and now let us consider other layers of benefits. The 15-minute workplace will create space for serendipities, or, as Tony Hsieh used to call it, “Return on Collisions”, as well as “Return on Community”. Those who have spent their careers in offices have often built connections for business and friendship with co-workers. After all, we spend more of our waking hours “at work” than “at home”, so such relationships are key.

Now, imagine now being part of a tribe of 80-100 people who use your local workplace, with a commonality being that you all live very locally. Imagine the connections and friendships that could spring up from that?

From a business standpoint, I am already developing an idea where a group of businesses across several towns in the same area and with existing business synergies between them get together and create a few such workplaces as a standalone business that they all invest in. They then each offer space at these hubs to staff from their own businesses who live close to each hub. Imagine, each of several hubs will have several staff from each of these businesses in them. What a way to build connections and synergies even more between these businesses. Another thought on this is that each hub will have meeting and collaboration space, so each of the investor businesses now has preferential access to multiple such spaces across the area where they operate and where their staff live.

In the London area commuting became a fact of life over 150 year ago thanks to railways, but prior to that people gained many, many returns from being actively involved in the community in their own village and town, often feeling little wish or need to leave more than very occasionally.

The concept of the 15-minute workplace offers, I believe, the potential to absolutely transform our relationship with towns and villages, taking the best of the digitally connected world with the real and very human connections we create when we connect with and spend time with people in person, whether in a “third space” or local shops, cafés, restaurants and more.


Tom McCallum

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