2021: Work Near Home is born

This time last year, Patch was just an idea. I had left my job six months earlier to try and figure out how we emerge from the pandemic with some positives. Amid the destruction,  business leaders responsible for the daily habits of millions had a collective shock to work norms. The internet makes a mockery of the fixed requirement for 5 days in a central office.

This was going to have transformational implications for us as people, and for the places and people we interact with daily. If we don't need to commute as much, then what are the other consequences? Our entire built environment is, obviously, constructed around where we spend our time. If we spend more time near home, and less time in the city, what infrastructure would we now need?

The idea turned in to a group of enthusiasts, then a team of advisors, investors, and finally of Patch employees.  We met hundreds of customers, toured scores of buildings, and finally opened our first location in Chelmsford in November. It's impossible to distil everything in this email but here are three themes that stick out from the past year:

(i) Remote moved from fringe to future

Remote and distributed working staying for the long term was, this time last year, still a contrarian view. Now, leafing through editorials and new year predictions, this seems a distant memory. About mid-year the debate pluralised, moving away from shouting about one-size-fits all answers, and towards the realisation that we would move to many different types of workplace culture. To each, their need, and we stopped solving for 'average' or 'traditional'.

Society and business now accept we have experienced a permanent shift in attitudes to work, and long established norms like commuting and in person meetings are being reorganised more closely around preferences for how many more of us actually live our lives. More productive, fewer wasted resources, more time for what we value. Work to wrap around our lives, not the other way around.

There are now simply too many reports and surveys to list, which overwhelmingly point to employee preferences to retain forms of flexible working. 2022 has started on the same vein, with the emptying of millions of square feet of office space. This detailed investigation was just one of many corporate attempts to understand what we now consider normal.

(ii) Local communities are truly special things

This is an obvious statement, in our own contexts. What I mean is the quantity and depth of welcome we've received in so many places, and with so many of you. We mostly love the places we live, and feel familiar with the people we share it with. What was less clear for us, until we started, was how Patch might access, and contribute to, these groups as a newcomer.

We needn't have worried, and Chelmsford has been a canonical example. From our very first interactions with the Council, to our first customers and local suppliers, we've been welcomed with open arms. One early conversation was summarised simply with the statement "If you're good for Chelmsford, then I want to help you".

We found this attitude around the country, in the hundreds of you that we've met in person at workshops, when touring high streets, or over email and phone. We view our role as hosts and convenors, but it's for each local building, team, membership, business and public community to help us nurture Patch. What works in Solihull will be very different to Ipswich. In the age of repeating and standardised high streets, building trust in local groups brings challenges and opportunities which we are excited about.

(iii) High streets are growing into their new role

We spent much of the first 6 months touring high streets at a furious pace. Our idea of what we needed evolved a lot as we spoke to more people. Ultimately, we coalesced around three themes that our customers were looking for in the work near home era - Form, Function and Belonging (which I wrote about here).

Much like flexible work, the discussion of the future of our high streets in the era of e-commerce comfortably predated the pandemic, during which it became a flood. This 2019 report from WeMadeThat is a nice example. We also found that a lot of Councils were way ahead of us, such as this report from Kingston which was produced early in the pandemic (and was way ahead of corporate commentators).

Looking back at our July newsletter, the architecture critic Rowan Moore and author Cal Newport both wrote convincingly about the opportunities for our local communities, if we work near home. Simon Kuper of the FT wrote similarly later on the same topic (What will arise from the demise of mass commuting?), before Patch was then covered by Sifted in September. By this point, the cultural momentum seemed to have fixed.

II. 2022: Much more than desks

I'll be much lighter here as I've already gone on. Though much will change, here are three themes we're organising around for 2022.

(i) How do we replace Debenhams?

Department stores have long been the staple of our high streets and focal points of our communities. We might have said something similar at different points of churches, town halls and libraries. Only now that these stores have nearly all disappeared are we fully embracing the emotional role they have played in our sense of place. These are big physical places, in hundreds of places, with deep emotional gaps. We can't leave them empty, and we will find new ways to fill them.

(ii) Showing that Work Near Home is much more than desks

Patch is not a 'co-working' or 'serviced office' company. We are a place of both professional and community gathering, where work and life can be engaged with in concert, not in competition. There are also many forms of work which don't involve desks at all but which form a key part of our daily identities (for example, food and childcare). We'd like to continue growing the definition of Patch and of 'near home' to broaden what we offer ourselves, what we support indirectly, and who we can reach.

(iii) Going online

Access to professional and community opportunities is not limited to a physical destination. This year, we will start providing places for our members and the public to interact with each other online, making connections and sharing ideas. We believe that working near your home should be an unfair opportunity, one that connects people across communities no matter where they might be physically based.