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Work-Play is the New Hunt-Gather

September 5th, 2007 by dk

Look around town. Which building project is the most prescient, the most futuristic, the most forward-thinking? It’s not the new Federal Courthouse, or any of the other LEED-certified sustainable projects, or the lifestyle shopping destination contemplated for downtown, or the cluster housing popping up in surprising places around town. It’s not even the $75 million flyover highway ramp connecting I-5 and Beltline via “The Jetsons.”

It’s WestTown, an affordable housing complex rising from the ground next to the W.O.W. Hall. Beneath 102 affordable housing units will be nine (market-rate) units that form the first floor and the project’s face to the street. These units offer something different.

They call them live-work space, and they point profoundly to the future.
(They also help the city add even more housing to the area while accommodating the area’s outdated C-2 zoning, but never mind that.) These units are designed for workers in what we’re calling “the knowledge economy.” Tenants will be able to live in the back and work in the front. (Think of an architect, or a software developer, or an independent sales rep.) As their work grows or diminishes, they may devote more space to work and choose to sleep elsewhere. Or they may choose to convert the entire space to living quarters and hang their work shingle from a different location. The design allows the space’s function to be as fluid as people’s lives: work, live, either or both.

Expectations for both work and play have risen tremendously over the past decade. The two no longer fit so neatly into a 24-hour day. We’ve gotten this far by cheating sleep, but even triple shots won’t help us eke out much more acceleration. Overlapping work and play is the only hope we have of keeping up. Coworkers and customers double as friends. Social circles becomes networking tools.

A job today no longer includes an entitlement to a job tomorrow. Companies stay competitive by adjusting their FTEs according to business volume. The stigma of a layoff is fading away for both the worker and the company. Friendships find themselves similarly in flux, as people change hobbies or ZIP codes or stations in life.

Remember when some of us wore “beepers?” They made us look important, but we called them electronic leashes. We didn’t want work to reach us so easily. Now the boss can call us on the weekends and we can’t very well claim we were “out.” We’re always “on call.” Our children or spouses can call us “at work,” even if we’re not at a desk in an office. Companies have fewer rules about time and space, so long as the work gets done. Ping pong in the break room? If productivity goes up, why not? “Taking work home” can be done with a flash drive that fits on a key chain. Cell phones and laptop computers have blurred the lines further.

Work can no longer be geographically defined. But neither can play. Professionals have always mixed work and play, making deals in a restaurant or on the golf course. It’s becoming like that for all of us. (Add the health club, the book group, the petition drive….) If your work involves thinking and you never stop thinking, when does it stop being work? Some writers claim they drink heavily because it’s the only way they have to “leave the office.”

How we work and how we play are more and more required to feed each other. An exceptionally talented and valuable worker is often now referred to as “a player.”

Housing that overlaps as work space anticipates the most significant shift ahead for American workers. Worker-players are the new hunter-gatherers.

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