Working from home sucks for a lot of people. Conversely, people are in no rush to return to long commutes to soulless city centres offices. A decentralised network of micro-hubs would allow people to work locally, inject accountability into communities and help regenerate high streets. Micro-hubs are the future of office working.
What the hell is a micro-hub?
I propose the micro-hub as a small office (6-30 people), located in a suburban or commuter area, ideally on a local high street. For larger corporations, a network of these hubs would be spread across large parts of the country. Micro-hubs are the corporate HQ reimagined; fractal, distributed, and local.
For some types of business (banking, retail), the infrastructure is already in place - micro-hubs could be incorporated into existing branches and stores, removing the need for a corporate HQ. For smaller companies, desk space at micro-hubs could be rented out, depending on need.
This is not a new idea
The 20th century saw a trend from localism to globalism. Beside the material benefits globalisation bought, it also exposed us to a new category of risk. Our drive towards centralisation and interconnectedness has led us to wider, systemic, cascade failures, of which Covid-19 is an example.
It's easy to forget that centralised commerce was not the norm for most of human history, and is in fact a recent phenomenon. The modern, open plan office would appear as a form of collective madness to anyone born before 1900. Before this time, it was the norm that legal, insurance, advertising, journalism, and other white collar professions were smaller local offices. I see a shift from globalism back to localism, driven by advances in telecommunications, 3d printing, and other technologies.
Moving corporations from HQs to micro-hubs presents a large upside for both employees and organisations. Lifestyle changes for most people as they age. It's not uncommon for younger people to seek a dynamic, big city lifestyle, whilst retreating into the suburbs, market towns, or further afield as they get older.
People are often held hostage to big cities longer than they would like due to work. A network of micro-hubs at a regional or national level would allow people the flexibility to change lifestyle, without having to worry about finding a new job. It would also boost employee retention.
From a recruitment perspective, employers would no longer be bound by geography. Micro-hubs would allow a much wider candidate pool, resulting in a more competitive and higher overall standard of candidate.
Customer service would improve also, but perhaps not in the way people think. There is often a disconnect between corporate, and employees who work on the 'shop floor'. It creates a parallel universe for those in corporate, where eccentric jargon and woke-ism reign supreme. I see a future where I can walk into my local Greggs and order a vegan sausage roll knowing a slither of corporate management is working in the back office. An office environment where they have skin in the game with regards to the local community, and are exposed to receiving a good bollocking from irate customers, rather than powerless souls that are often used as customer service cannon-fodder.
Forget big corporations paying low taxes as a source of evil. They do far more damage in the way they destroy local communities. A localist approach is a fair and equitable approach. In a decentralised workplace, people can still get personal tasks done (e.g. dropping off kids at school). It can also help rejuvenate local high streets and bring familiar faces back into the community - a place to live AND work. A workplace that fosters a sense of community and accountability at a local level.
Learning lessons from Al-Qeada
Large offices don't scale. Here we can learn a lesson from Al-Qaeda. The terrorist group operates as a collection of cells, distributed geographically, with no distinct specialisation between them. This clandestine cell system has made it notoriously difficult to eliminate them - you cannot cut the head off of the proverbial snake. It is a great irony that the key preventing another 9/11 may be for organisations to mimic the structure of Al-Qeada.
Not only are decentralised office environments robust to terrorist attacks, they are also robust to power failures, water leaks, earthquakes, traffic jams, protests, riots, and a whole host of other 'long tail' effects that are catastrophic to corporate headquarters. From a business continuity point of view, micro-hubs make sense.
Maybe one day micro-hubs will all become a reality - it's certainly something I would like companies to experiment with. We need to be brave to try it though, otherwise I fear a future of working from the dining table, or even worse, a lazy return to the failure of the open plan office.