Beyond four walls: treating a neighborhood as work infrastructure.

October 22, 2017 | | View Comments

By Melissa Tapper Goldman, co-founder, The Village Works

Editor’s note: Melissa Tapper Goldman is a Think Tank member for the Boston and San Francisco Workplace Innovation Summits on October 27th and November 17th.

When co-founding The Village Works, a coworking space four blocks from the Boston city line in Brookline, Massachusetts, I set out to build a neighborhood workspace. This was a model that centers a neighborhood—rather than a specific industry or company—as our constituency. Startup-centric coworking is now a multi-billion dollar global industry, but the space of neighborhood office infrastructure is relatively less explored. As a team of designers ourselves, we knew that much of the value we could provide was in infusing design thinking into both our space planning and our business decisions, making every square foot of our space work triple time for us and our community. We took immense care with the details: sights, sounds, smells, programming, human-scale design. And we collaborated closely with a talented architect and design-build fabricator.

But there was a key element to our process as designer-developers that preceded the planning and reuse of our 19th century hardware store. Site selection was as integral as any choice we made in the buildout process or in launching our community. By the nature of our model, we’re small. But this tactic of urban acupuncture is potentially scalable in the right neighborhoods and with a sensitive approach.

From urban design and planning perspectives, where a workplace lives has impact well beyond what happens inside. When we launched, we knew that we were entering a local business ecosystem and that our infusion of 50+ workers and visitors every day to our village square could impact the direction of other local development. We also designed for whole-life solutions to address people’s rapidly shifting work and home obligations. This “work near home” setup provides the fluidity, comfort, and professional infrastructure necessary for a generation of workers to “redesign” their own lives (hint: it’s not so easy). Near home means that the location is intrinsic to the space and  community. The neighborhood is both a part of our members’ sense of home—and the neighborhood is an extension of our space itself.

We asked questions about our neighborhood and our site. Would there be childcare within walking distance, with options for nursing mothers? Would there be a place to buy a loaf of bread, or get dry cleaning done? What about a post office, a barber shop, a notary, bank, gym, or dentist? Was it at the nexus of different neighborhoods, bringing multiple forms of diversity to support a robust community? Was it commutable by foot and bike as well as public transit and car, fostering low-emissions commutes while remaining resilient to inevitable interruptions in access? These are elements that we can’t provide independently, but we can create proximity and real relationships with other local offerings including small businesses.

We know that physical design of a workplace has cascading impacts on both user experience and corporate bottom line, from health and job satisfaction to productivity and space utilization. We’ve seen this embraced and explored in the past decade, particularly in the tech industry, as companies like Google, Facebook and Apple have invested in massive campuses, reinventing the physical office and reimagining the what an office can be. This exploration is as true in the physical design as the temporal, while the workday is overhauled and reprogrammed through shifting norms of how we work, where we work, and the commingling of work, play, and personal obligations (yes, Google has an on-site dentist). It’s an exciting time in workplace design.

At The Village Works, we wanted to provide a platform for our community to address their whole-life needs. Rather than build an inward-facing campus, we looked for ways to plug into (and support) a living local economy. It turns out that to find workplace amenities, you don’t need to build them from scratch within fortified walls. They’re right here in our own towns and cities. We were committed to supporting local enterprise and entrepreneurs—inside and outside of our walls—knowing that the campus model not only fails to support the local business ecosystem, it can actually drain away both customers and resources. Our choice of site would mean investing more vibrancy into our neighborhood—or siphoning it away.

Actually, the choice is not so easy, since amenities like parking are cheaper and more plentiful outside the city center, and leasing retail storefront is a significant expense. In the end, we found a three-story building, a mix of storefront and back office, located next to major rail and bus lines and a bike share hub. We’re in a village center with its own small gravitational pull, near the city but not in the city center.

We are an office during the day and an event space at night, but our storefront is part of our contribution to the urban design of the neighborhood 24/7. It’s both attractive and active, showcasing more kinds of activity than the shopping and banking that are largely front and center. For us, storefront is both marketing and visual contribution, inviting the public in and sparking curiosity about our space, while reinforcing to our members a feeling of connectedness to sidewalk life all day long. We worked with service designer Andrew Shea of MANY Design on a logo and visual presence that’s both fresh and solid, a modern anchor in a historic district, while we highlight the personality of our 19th-century building. The Town of Brookline’s facade review required us to formalize and solidify our vision, opening us up to community input in a productive process. And our synergistic collaboration with the town’s economic development planners and Economic Development Advisory Board began years before we launched, with goodwill and a desire on both sides to work toward common goals.

Nationwide, we’re now seeing large companies inside and outside of tech move to the city, availing themselves of shifting rental markets and perhaps realizing the value of the investments already made in cities: through government, zoning and existing businesses.

Recently, Boston has been involved with a bid to attract Amazon’s campus to the northeast. Joe Curtatone, the progressive mayor of adjoining city Somerville, has added a vision not of an isolated, fortified compound, but a distributed network of offices, warehouses, and work centers expanding along train lines, filling transit-adjacent vacancies and supporting a dense city community that already exists. The dentists are already there, as are the workforce and plans for infrastructure. Popular urbanists like Richard Florida are beginning to talk about major companies’ responsibilities to the city.

The truth is that no company will be the city’s savior. The goals of the city and of private enterprise aren’t always aligned. But as we continue to reformulate the places that work happens—both inside our buildings and within our cities–we can make smart decisions and embody design leadership as citizens and small entities as well as major players. We can build well in smart, multi-beneficial locales and support the public square when we have opportunities. We can treat neighborhoods as the tremendous assets they already are.

To learn more about the future of diversity in the workplace be sure to join us for the 2017 Workplace Innovation Summits in Boston on October 27th and in San Francisco on November 17th!