Time and space

One of the (admittedly very few) good things about the current crisis is that many of us are demonstrating we can be productive without camping in a cubicle. We’re discovering fresh new ways of doing things together without sharing the same floor or office space. We can bring value without bringing ourselves into the same square footage. We are learning that while some things require us all in the same room, a lot of them don’t.

By beating space, we end up beating time as well. This is not new. The first public libraries were time-consuming locations. Many modern libraries, and I know a few, still are. Yet, the tide is turning, and digital technology has enabled readers to save time by saving space. The 21st-century library is not a place where one goes as a first and last resort, but a final option when all others fail. As more and more publications and special collections are being digitised, the need to visit libraries solely for consulting that material decreases. Many libraries have made it their vision and mission.

Our job culture has a lot to learn from this. Unless strictly impractical, workers should be allowed to work from home as a matter of course, not by special arrangement.

Working physically together pushes us towards scheduling more and more meetings, which often prove to be the enemies of productivity.

Many meetings are a waste of group and individual time, as the Harvard Business Review argued a few years ago, not to mention a waste of space (often, meetings cannot be scheduled due to a shortage of space). Many people complain that meetings keep them from doing their own work. Working from home releases those constraints and focuses the picture on what’s important, which space to occupy and which and how much time to fill.

The baseline here should be that which is now beginning to apply for special collections in many public libraries: visit us only if there is no other way.

There is a striking scene at the end of the movie Surrogates, which I mention here as a perverse irony to what I’ve just said. In this scene, the entire population who had spent years inside their houses connected, via computers, to androids living their hosts’ lives on their behalf, suddenly wake up and walk outside into the sun. The shackles we make for ourselves can also be unmade.


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