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Remaking the Workspace to Boost Social Connection

Source | | Martha Bird

Our relationship to space is a complicated one. Space is one of those terms that many of us sense we grasp but struggle to describe with any precision. It is often imagined in terms of an imprecise distance, as in the space between objects and people, or a quantity, as in, “How much space is left on my hard drive?” or “Is there space in the living room for a desk?” Space is the subject of scientific practice as well as an opportunity for galactic travel and exploration. Our definitions of space really depend on where we’re coming from. And, let’s face it, most of us simply take space for granted — something that surrounds us and to which we generally pay little notice.

As a number of social scientists have convincingly argued, space is not merely a static, inert dimension in which “stuff” is placed and organized. Space is known to us by virtue of the social interactions that make it visible: Space is both deeply political and unquestionably social.1 Keeping six feet apart while practicing social distancing brings the relational, interpersonal quality of space front and center. It is also a reminder that our space is shared; my air is your air, and what I do affects your space, and vice versa.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been able to conduct our work within the relative safety of our domestic spaces over the past year, there has been a general sense of disorientation and a blurring of work and home life.

Many other people, however, have had no choice but to get up every day and go to a place of work. Think for a moment about the kinds of proximities that onsite caregivers, teachers, health care providers, delivery people, transit workers, and store clerks face daily due to the necessary density of their workspaces. They must contend with their inability to distance much from other people and the consequent anxieties that this likely instills in them — at the workplace and in the (often public) transportation routes required for them to get to work.

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