Post-COVID, let’s get Britain cottaging

If you’ve been around the UK tech scene for a while, you might remember something called the Highlands and Islands Telecommunications Initiative. Kicked off in 1989, this was a project to invest in the telecoms infrastructure of the north of Scotland, to help improve economic prospects.

Work involved upgrading the network, and local exchanges, with the technology of the time, which was ISDN. ISDN was never cheap, and the project didn’t really envisage hooking up every home to the service. Instead, there was much talk of “Telecottages.”

The concept is simple – a shared space, with internet connections, fax and other office facilities. People from a rural area would be able to travel relatively easily to the telecottage, and work from there, rather than working from home, or enduring a long – or impossible – commute to a larger office somewhere. You can read a description in this Herald article from 1994.

Homework hassles

What does this have to do with where we are now? COVID has changed much, and it’s forced many people to work from home. Some think this will change offices forever; others think it’s more of a brief abberation, and we’ll be back to the daily commute as soon as it’s safe.

I suspect that there both are a little true, and which seems the more plausible to you will depend on many factors, including age and where you live.

It’s certainly true that many companies have realised that they don’t need to have everyone in one place, and a lot of office work can be done remotely, just as effectively. That’s often particularly true of more senior staff.

Those senior staff, of course, are more likely to be paid well, and to have a nice place to live. The lower your pay, the less senior your role, the less likely you are to have sufficient disposable income to make working from home quite so pleasant.

I’m lucky – I bought my flat in the 90s, when things were cheap, and I have a room set aside as an office. At the end of the working day, I leave it, and the computer stays in there. I can relax and not be bothered; the office phone is programmed to go to voicemail after 6pm.

For many younger people – especially in cities like London – that may not be possible. If you’re sharing a home with other people, there may not be enough space for everyone to find a room to work in alone, unless you want to work in your bedroom. There may not be enough space for a proper desk and chair either. And so, very quickly, working from home ceases to become a welcome change, and turns into a bit of a nightmare, where boundaries between work and personal time are increasingly blurred.

Enter the cottage

And that’s where I think the concept of telecottages is worth revisiting. Shared working spaces have been in the news lately, with companies like We Work, but often these places seem to put a lot of focus on creating the “Silicon valley startup” aesthetic, and being in a good location, and I’m not sure that’s really necessary.

Strip back the idea to something more like the original, and possibly quite smaller. Imagine if, in many areas of a city like London, there was a shared working space fifteen or twenty minutes walk away from where you live. Somewhere with really fast internet – where you can send large documents just as easily as receive them, unlike at home – and decent desks, with decent chairs.

You could book space for a few days a week, or just a few days a month. Work from home when you needed to, or sometimes go into the office for meetings with a larger team.

You’d still be saving a fortune on commuting costs, yet you’d have a better working environment than you do in a shared home, and the ability to switch off at the end of the work day.

For companies, rather than spend money on providing a proper chair and other equipment for home workers, they could be provided with either a grant towards telecottage costs, or the company could pay a subscription providing each worker with a certain number of days per year.

Given that the costs of the facilities would be shared by all the companies using them, this could still work out cheaper than keeping big prestige offices.

Building communities

There’s one other aspect too, which I think is often overlooked. Modern telecottages could help build community. If people are working in an area, they’ll be more likely to pop out and buy their lunch there, and do other shopping. It could give a boost to the many small high streets dotted across big cities.

Not only that, but by bringing people together in a telecottage, you would get to meet other people who live near you, whom you would otherwise only have seen standing mute on the platform as you commuted to the centre of town. So telecottages could help build connections between people in cities, too.

It’s clear to many people that the world of work isn’t going to be the same when the pandemic is over. But is the idea of the telecottage is due for a spot of urban renewal?

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