The Future of Shared Workspaces in a C-19 World
UPDATE: I had a chance to chat with Joel Davis for the Boulder Tech Podcast on this topic. Check out the episode here!
Your office is probably closed. Grocery stores are limiting the number of people who can be inside at any given moment. Restaurants have shifted to pickup and delivery only. People are wary and maintaining large buffers around themselves and others. In these unprecedented times, we have to be nimble and take each day as it comes and part of that is looking at what these shifts in behavior will mean in the future.
As the Head of Innovation at SolderWorks, I am seeing firsthand the reinforcement that how we interact with one another and our environment will never be the same. So the burden falls to all of us to define how we move ahead with collaboration in general, and to those of us who facilitate lab spaces, how we conduct ourselves when building hardware, software, and physical products in general.
In my reflection of what going back to work might look like, I had the privilege of organizing a discussion around the future of shared spaces with others who run or organize their own businesses that are dependent on bringing people together. Groups like Galvanize, BoomTown Accelerators, representatives from educational institutions like MIT, and hardware companies like Helium came together yesterday morning over a zoom call to discuss what we are all doing, and what impact this virus is having on our lives.
Here at SolderWorks, we decided before the order to shelter in place went out to encourage everyone to work from home. But, as many of the startups in our Innovation Fund are dependent on some of the tools in our labs, this has had substantial ramifications on their ability to progress. Electronics require access to soldering stations, oscilloscopes, 3d printers, spectrum analyzers, etc., and most folks working in the field — especially those who are early on in their process — will only have limited access at home to make progress on their designs.
More broadly, there are elements to shared spaces that undoubtedly make our lives better. Social interaction and engagement with our peers are critical elements to building trusting relationships and doing so face-to-face (for some people) is much easier than through a computer screen. For others, the office is a refuge: a place where they can focus and accomplish their goals. This is one element that some of us can forget. I wanted to specifically thank Tara O’Brian and Katie O’Block for bringing this to light. Entrepreneurs forging their own path greatly benefit from the camaraderie that, up until recently, had been tied to where they interact and conduct business. For those who are getting started, the digital facsimile doesn’t have the same impact as sharing a cup of coffee with those going through the same struggles as you. On this note, now is a great time to reach out to your friends and colleagues who might be feeling isolated — we all need community now more than ever.
Our discussion turned toward what we can do going forward to allow people to feel safe when we eventually come back to the office. I recently became aware of the MIT Safe Paths project and think their approach to providing highly secure, anonymized location data might be key to informing people when they should take precautions. For context, their application is working to notify users when and where they crossed paths with a diagnosed patient. I was pleased to have Robson Beaudry, who is actively working on the project, give us some additional context around the reasoning behind the endeavor. They are very aware that people need to own their data and not have any doubt that the information they are volunteering will be used for anything other than keeping them safe. In that aim, the MIT group is doing some great things. (If you are an engineer of any type that is looking to contribute in some way, be sure to volunteer)
Going a step further, what if the infrastructure of our offices forced compliance of not utilizing shared spaces when we are sick? At SolderWorks, we built our own access control system to our labs in order to ensure those with access had the proper training on the equipment we offer to our Innovation Fund members. What if we extended access to include checking for temperature? For my part, and the protection of my family, knowing that the building itself could force awareness when someone was ill would make me a bit more comfortable in using shared equipment, but is that too invasive? Would that force people to be distrustful of the environment in general? Tough questions for sure, especially where privacy is concerned. I personally believe there is an element of infrastructure that will play into the future of shared workspaces, especially in a lab setting where we can trigger events to force a cool down and sterilization period. Here I wanted to thank Travis Teague in bringing up the important question on how we are handling sterilization of things like development boards and other equipment. In future posts, I’m looking into what might be possible with UV-C light to sterilize spaces and protective equipment as well as what intelligent access control might look like.
Taking a few steps back, what does it actually look like when we are given the green light to go back to work? What can we learn from other countries in this arena who are slowly coming out of forced lockdown? Galvanize has a wonderful ‘Stage’ protocol in place so members can know what services are available and how they should respond during certain events. I believe all workspaces should have some variation of this protocol in place in the future, especially when a space might be compromised and what procedures are triggered in those situations. But beyond policies, what has to be done socially and culturally? What does going back to work mean for people in how they interact with the space? Here, Boomtown Accelerators has a wonderful approach on new social contracts. All members agree to certain behaviors intended to keep themselves, their colleagues, and visitors safe. In the short term, these social contracts are agreements to maintain physical distances from one another, meet with mentors or friends outside of the space, and keep their shared spaces limited to just their immediate employees. There are even agreements to how to greet one another. For all of us, handshakes and hugs will most likely no longer be the norm, but agreeing to an appropriate greetings method is essential for everyone to feel comfortable congregating and building relationships in person again.
So what might all this mean for SolderWorks? For the short term, our office and lab is closed and I’m working diligently to create new policies and procedures to keep everyone safe and comfortable. These will be published soon and I look forward to collaborating with the community to ensure that we come out of this strong and focused on building the future of IoT, edge computing, robotics, and connected devices together.
If you’re working in this area, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org