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Where We Work Has Always Been Changing

Many American schoolchildren learn about ancient Greece, and one of the foundational ideas they learn about is the agora, or centralized gathering space that functioned as the heart of Greek city-states. The agora was where citizens gathered to hear from their leaders, debate with one another, and muster for military duty. It was also a magnet for merchants and artisans. The agora was a hub of Greek commercial and cultural life. 

Fast-forward a few centuries to the 1600s, when coffeehouses arose in the Ottoman Republic as publicly-accessible spaces for different social and mercantile groups to meet, do business and exchange ideas. The coffeehouses quickly spread west; they persisted as centers of culture and commerce through the 1800s, though the introduction of dedicated office buildings in the early 1700s provided an alternate setting for work. Today, urban downtowns with their mix of office space, shops, and eateries, are often used as a stand-in for the agora, and one of the stories dominating the business press for the last few years has been about whether or not cities are in "urban doom loops" thanks to the reduction of in-office workers. 

The thought leaders of the late 20th century often described the Internet as an electronic agora; in an amusing historic echo, a lot of cafes set up Internet access. A substantial percentage of today's workforce romped through the computer bulletin boards (BBS) hosted on different servers, debated on Usenet, or gravitated to Web-based message boards before settling into social media silos. 

What is remarkable about each of these very different milieus -- the agora, the coffee house, the modern office, the Internet -- is that to their participants, they all embodied the same collection of traits: Access to people, access to ideas, a place for a diverse crowd to connect, collaborate, and profit. 

It's worth noting that coffeehouses were often scapegoated as dens of disruption -- and not in the fun, Silicon Valley way. Assorted rulers attempted to outlaw these locations, and usually had to back down in the face of public sentiment.  

Paradoxically, the struggle between workplace leaders and their workforces is almost the exact opposite of what these rulers attempted to do, but the sentiment is the same: people who are used to commanding where and when people do their business are finding out that the people doing business have their own strongly-held preferences. The New York Times had a piece this week, "Back-to-Office Battles Underscore a Change in Workplace Authority," which captures the dynamic: 

“Colleagues have enjoyed a taste of independence, if not of freedom,” says Laura Empson, a professor of the management of professional service firms at Bayes Business School at City University of London. “We have been effective in isolation. We are not automatically going to accept authority as we may have done before.” 

This isn't to say we're sliding into authority-free anarchy and everyone is working at home in their pajamas forever. History clearly shows that workplaces can and do change in response to broader cultural innovations. Why wouldn't it be happening again right now?  

The ability to connect and collaborate on new things -- from ideas to businesses -- does not hinge on specific and fixed physical requirements. It needs only a sense of accessible space and the cultural expectation that this is what the space nurtures. There are ways workplace leaders can create their own agora that moves between the geographic and online spaces and empowers their workforce to show up to listen to the leaders, collaborate with one another, and thrive.