A Brief History of Outdoor Knowledge Work
It might strike today’s readers as curious that for a period in the twenty-first century some people could work on their computers in any location they happened to choose, using a global computer network called ‘the internet’. This practice of remote or mobile working, particularly in the so-called knowledge economy, was viewed by some as a release from the shackles of a dominant earlier model of work, where vast numbers of city dwellers would rise at close to exactly the same time, drive or catch public transport at exactly the same time, and arrive at a place of work shared by everyone else employed by their organisation—spending much of their time on computers, also using the internet. Knowledge workers who didn’t come into these centralised offices and worked from home or another location were in this sense said to be working ‘remotely’.
A particular kind of person, or way of describing human activity, began to take shape in this broader historical context: the outdoor knowledge worker (OKW). This brief essay will look back on the legacy and peculiar historical weathers associated with this figure.
Offices in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries
Literature, film and television from the 1990s and early 2000s captures the atmospherics of the workplaces OKWs sought to escape. The hugely popular BBC television series The Office (BBC, 2001-2003), written and directed by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, depicted the insulated, brightly-lit environments common in offices that were equally familiar to Australians as those working in the England—a fact which might surprise considering the different climates and landscapes of the two nations. The sounds of telephone calls, photocopiers, keyboards and a general electrical hum typified the sonic ambience of such spaces.
The Temporary (2013) an early work of the novelist Rachel Cusk, renders the late twentieth- century office atmosphere in a particularly bleak manner. Cusk describes the first impressions of her protagonist Francine as she begins temporary secretarial work in a new office:
She opened a door and the brown, mummified silence of the corridor was all at once broken by the familiar chatter and hum of the office and a bank of dull natural light emanating from the large windows to the far side…a flat, immaculate vista of steely geometry and manicured synthetic fibres, its variations in tone all conducted in the key of grey. Through the windows the low cloudy sky and iron hives of companion office blocks were visible. From the fifth floor one could see other fifth floors, the heads of buildings like a crowd of adults…everyone bent their heads, or turned to gaze blankly into computer screens while their fingers tapped at keyboards in an imitation of tedium…In front of the desk stood what appeared to be a coffee station, a small table on which a kettle fumed in a dry and dissolving landscape of shiny brown pools and white hillocks of sugar, interspersed with tiny dark granular boulders, stained spoons, and damp fists of used teabags.
Evocative as this passage is, it would be wrong to assume this was the characteristic ambience of all offices during the period. Indeed, by 2020, better lighting, more playful colours, natural materials, and plants were far more common. Offices tried to become fun. When they tried too hard, as was often the case, they became zany.
It’s also worth pointing out that, for a range of reasons, many humans in fact thrived in these office environments, whether due to the escape the space afforded from the domestic sphere, to the social connections office environments facilitated, or on account of being inured to the disagreeable sensory dimensions Cusk describes.
In 2020 and 2021, the health guidelines associated with the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many employers shifting to the so-called remote working model. The pandemic provoked a process of future-visioning that brought to light new possibilities for the where, when and how of work. For many decades a new industry and community for OKWs thrived. Many workers elected to work at home, others found outdoor spaces in which to conduct their work lives. Local councils and private organisations began to see the value of imagining knowledge work as something that could be conducted in outdoor or semi-outdoor environments. Outdoor shelters and basic amenity for OKWs started to become a common sight. This infrastructure and the associated norms for working were at this point in history all contingent on internet access and portable computing. Everything was to again change massively when the ‘Lovelace (computer) Virus’ and the great satellite wars made it increasingly difficult to rely on computer mediated communication.
A most peculiar memoir
Photographic evidence from social media in 2020 depicts images of park benches and picnic tables occupied by people bejewelled in the white earphones, containing microphones, that were fashionable at the time, staring intently into the thin, oblong screens. Absent from these images, however, are the more architecturally advanced OKW shelters and associated infrastructure that started to become popular in the decades after the virus.
The landscape and architectural affordances for OKWs in 2020 were very limited indeed. Workers would bodge together an office using their portable computing technology, domestic accessories and outdoor facilities designed for leisure activities. Some, however, seemed to take great pleasure in the apparent lack of contrivances in the built environment and were far from bothered conducting their day in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the swagmen so dear to the distant settler mythology of the nation.
In a most peculiar text written in late 2020, author Tom Lee reflects on the emergence of a new sight in Sydney parks, which then became increasingly common in the years after pandemic. Lee recalls how certain picnic huts, which were typically unoccupied during the weekdays in previous years, became popular places of work for OKWs. Whereas previously Lee could be certain there’d be space in the huts for him throughout the year, after 2020 he needed to ensure he was in the huts early in the morning to get a spot. I quote at length from Lee’s original text here in order to preserve a richer sense of the historical atmospherics:
To say that I now work from parks doesn’t quite capture the subtleties and specificity of my workplace. I work from a set of picnic huts in a park near a beach. The huts provide crucial shade so I can see my screen, and protection from the sonic disturbances of the wind—all-important for online teaching and meetings. I depend on a straw basket to carry my things, earphones for my meetings and class, on a number of thermos cups for my hot drinks, a power bank to charge my aforementioned mobile computing technology, enamel plates and bowls for my breakfast and lunch and an adjustable platform to raise the height of my laptop—which a passer-by has told me reminded him of a church pew. Other people have also got the idea: the huts, which were empty through the colder months of 2019, are now typically full by midday, with my coworkers all displaying their own similar but different computer augmented postures, practices and possibilities.
There is a sense of an emergent novelty evident in the way Lee describes his activities, as though he believed he was in the vanguard of a transformational change. Surveying the work practices of the following decades reveals this is of course only partially true. Lee’s practices could be interpreted as an evolutionary dead-end as much an influential ancestor. Absent from his account are the soon to be hugely influential regional meetup groups (discussed later in this essay) and the new ways of working and institutional landscape that came in their wake.
Lee’s text does offer the contemporary reader a sense of what the outdoor working environment was like before the more significant changes of the twenty-first century. And while far from unique in this regard, it is an evocative reminder of how computerised technology designed for indoor use started to be used outside.
The spectacle associated with the gradual spilling of computers into the outdoors is to some extent captured in Lee’s fascination with the different postures of OKWs. The memoir features an attempt at cataloguing the attributes associated with limb position, facial expression, body orientation, distribution of shade and the incorporation of outdoor furniture. Lee started to compose a peculiar graphic to tabulate this information and occasionally sketched anatomical drawings with computers incorporated into the human form.
Lee’s text details the variations in the design of different of his favoured picnic huts: the materials and dimensions of the tables or in his words, ‘desks’; the configuration and quality of the seating; the finishes used on the different surfaces; the orientation of the small dwellings and their relationship with wind, rain and sun; access to amenity in the surrounding area, including a focus on taps, for which Lee seems to hold a particular and at times disconcerting fondness.
To find a tap in an obscure location, he writes, is an experience that provokes a kind of gratitude unmatched even by the most intense and sustained orgasm of the sexual variety.
In a section titled ‘Weather Diary’ Lee describes both the ordinary and ‘extreme’ weather events—so they thought at the time! —that characterised his tenure in the huts. On one day in December 2020 he laments a rare easterly wind which somehow manages to blow the persistent rain of the day into all of his favoured huts—a first in Lee’s experience—coating the surfaces in a grotty film of water, first mopped up with scrunched-up brown paper bags, then various old baseball caps stray in his picnic basket, and lastly a rag torn from the bottom edge of an old towel that had been stowed in the car ‘for exactly this kind of thing’. Soon after he names the rag ‘Kieran’ and it makes several appearances over the course of the memoir. Lee also writes of elaborate uses of towels and tarps for added shade in the years before significant government investment in cooling infrastructure and revegetation programs.
In a section entitled ‘Miscellany’, Lee notes a number of random events associated with the huts and his time working there. He speculates at length about the significance of one occasion where a series of white, lace tablecloths had been fitted over the tables in the huts and imagines an entire range of comparable cloths in different colours, made from materials with different affordances and with small compartments for the placement of his accessories. Some of these cloths, Lee imagines, would be available in cheap, affordable, largely toxic materials from a vending machine in the park, while mid-range equivalents could be purchased in office supply stores and high-end varieties in designer shops.
Lee writes of a favoured sandstone rock beneath a tap at the southern end of Bronte beach, worn by corrosive drips, which provided a small platform of sorts, above the sodden ground, while his sandy feet were given a quick blast before heading home from the beach. This small gesture seemed to unlock a great realm of possibility in Lee’s imagination. It provoked a series of sketches in which he iterated different designs for so called rock-tap pairings, all with the common feature of a tap or tap-like structure, a stone and a sandy food intruding from the side of the page. Lee even went to the trouble of sourcing a large limestone rock from his family farm that he placed underneath a tap in a park, only to be hugely dismayed when the rock—which he called ‘Nathan’—disappeared soon after.
Lee writes of the occasional disruptions of ‘leaf blowers’ while teaching his remote university tutorials through a laptop computer. These most peculiar technologies, perhaps indicative of the mindset of the period—though one wouldn’t want to draw too long a bow here—were petrol-powered gardening equipment used in place of brooms to clear paths and roads of stray debris. It might shock today’s readers to learn that these blowers could be purchased for around the same price as a mid-range restaurant meal.
A somewhat solitary octopus it would seem, Lee nonetheless writes with enthusiasm of the infrequent meetings with colleagues in the huts, both coincidental and contrived, and seems to think of himself as in some kind of communion with a magpie—which were once not uncommon in urban environments. In a section titled Other Friends in Other Locations, he mentions a small mushroom called Steven that grew on outdoor picnic table at Steyen Park in Double Bay, and a staghorn fern growing on the upper branches of tree in the same park, which doesn’t seem to have a name. There are also extended comments on ants, ibis, willy wagtails, a cockroach living in his basket, and two dogs owned by another regular park user that eat the crumbs from his various bakery treats.
‘Regional meetups’ take hold
While Lee’s account of his time working in the hut might be romantic and endearing at some level, it would be misguided to see him as a herald for the variety of OKW practices that started to take hold after the pandemic. The ‘regional meetups’, initiated by different employers so OKWs could maintain a sense of connectedness with their colleagues, were undoubtedly of far greater historical significance. Though vastly transformed due to a range of new institutional arrangements, the meetups laid the groundwork for the way we continue to work today.
Some historians have compared the meetups to the influential local automobile and bicycle clubs that advocated for their respective means of transport and investment in associated infrastructure at various points in the twentieth century. Regional meetups networked with local councils and formed powerful lobby groups that influenced a number of important planning decisions concerning the use of public space, in particular the return of golf courses to public parkland with sheltered structures designed for OKWs. With the help of these groups, the picnic, the barbecue and the walk—activities that today are impossible to disassociate from work in some capacity—all started to become the deliberately designed genres of information sharing and knowledge creation with which are familiar today. While many pundits have speculated as to whether these practices might have been better when kept ‘pure’ from the sphere of work, on balance it would seem that the advocates outweigh the critics. Furthermore, by analogy: one could hardly argue that the ‘business lunch’, a practice with a long tradition in the corporate sphere, damaged lunches in general on account of its association with work.
Upon realising the benefits of working in more diverse and adaptive ways, some ‘regional meet up’ groups struck out and formed their own learning and research institutions. Often these institutions were repurchased by larger businesses, sometimes with positive, sometimes negative outcomes depending on the alignment of work cultures. In the context of universities, where these changes were among the most pronounced, people began to research and teach in groups determined by geography rather than disciplinary orientation and developed expertise specific to their local environments and demographics. This way of working was, however, no more successful than previous criteria for organising disciplines.
The savvier institutions developed measures both to facilitate productive regional meetups and to determine when particular groups didn’t seem to be working well together. When the latter was the case, a return to larger, more closely monitored work hubs was often mandated.
An influential 2028 report into new models of working revealed that employee wellbeing and productivity increased dramatically when people interacted with animals in environments with fresh air and abundant vegetation during the day. In context where well-being was just starting to become as important as other metrics for success, this crucial piece of evidence gave the regional meetup groups the authority both to convince senior management and rank and file members of staff. Soon investment began to flow into the design of a range of animal and plant-friendly distributed, demountable work stations, and, at the landscape level, parks and public spaces that facilitated increased interactions between humans and other species. Before long ‘Zooffices’ were being touted as the future of work.
Businesses started to cater to the emerging trend of people working outdoors. Products ranged from office equipment to animals and plants deliberately selected, trained and, in some cased bred, for OKW. Some organisations leased products to larger institutions that were encouraging employees to work outdoors, others leased direct to individual customers.
In 2020 and even as late as 2030, outdoor equipment such as chairs, umbrellas and baskets, belonged very much to the world of leisure and was often cheaply made. The world of portable outdoor equipment had remained peripheral to the intensive scrutiny associated with large-scale design initiatives. A distinctive style synonymous with OKW was yet to emerge. By 2040, however, the stylistic connotations of outdoor equipment were almost entirely overtaken by what became known as the outdoor knowledge aesthetic, which took inspiration from fashion brands that balanced formality and informality, and the delicate and the rugged. Revivals of older styles of outdoor equipment made sporadic appearances, as evident in the 2050s subscription offered by the brand Paul Smith to a range of bright, stripy folding chairs, adjustable desks and desk canopies made from tubular steel, which were intended to reference mass produced beach furniture common in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These were, however, only superficial allusions, in substance OKW services and products retained a look and feel that set them apart from earlier examples.
For a time councils even invested in childcare officers, or what became known as Guardians of the Play (GoP), who were stationed in the increasing number of wild play environments which doubled as day care centres for OKWs. Many distributed work stations and regional meetups formed associations with GoPs who became important members of their organisational structures, often working in a roster relationship with other members. A later report revealed that many of the activities initially designed for children became effective templates for so-called adult knowledge generation activities, and children started to be incorporated into institutional decision-making processes—again, as can be expected, with varying degrees of success,.
All that remains of the picnic shelters discussed in Lee’s 2020 text are the cement foundations of one hut, which are still visible during low tide at Bronte beach. The cement and leaking rust of the steel brackets show through the sand like the ground-down molars of a great, buried giant. It’s difficult to imagine Lee sitting at his table on a sparsely vegetated and comparatively empty hillside from such an aquatic vantage. As I trudge my way through the sand, back to the visioning picnic to interface with my colleagues, I wonder whether, fifty years hence, perhaps when the satellites have been relaunched and the Lovelace virus eliminated, that I too might enjoy that seemingly blissful experience of shifting my attention between an invisible network of information coming through a screen and the wide open horizon of an expansive landscape.
Cusk, R (2013). The Temporary. London: Faber and Faber.
Lee, T (2020). Park Days and Salad Nights. Randwick Literary Institute, Randwick City Council.