How airports can change how we think of places

Heathrow Terminal 2 before opening in 2014. Image: Getty.

I remember a time I became part of a mass of impatient flyers, as the technology collapsed in front of me at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Airports have become sites of big data and code – and when this vital lifeblood collapses, so does the airport. It becomes like a chaotic doctors’ waiting room.

Despite the inconvenience and chagrin, it is in moments like this where we can stop, stand still, and think about the space in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we should reflect more deeply on the place of the airport, a space that we so often neglect when we treat is merely as a waiting room from A to B. 

Airports are not just hubs of dizzying heights of technology, where the barcodes on the luggage tags allow the sorting of luggage according to flights. They are more abstract places of beauty, imbued with meaning, emotion, and identity.

Marc Augé wrote how airports, just like hotels and shopping malls, fall into the generic category of ‘non-place’ – devoid of any identity, a mere ‘space’, not even a ‘place’, through which one travels out of necessity.

Of course, the practical function of airports must not be overlooked – but what about the feelings of disorientation triggered by the confusing signs pointing us to a myriad of places as we pass through Heathrow Terminal 5? Or what about the architectural beauty of Denver International Airport with its marque-like exterior? Airports are too often synonymous with feelings of angst and hassle, and it is time to appreciate them as places in their own right, each one unique compared to the other.  

For British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, the life of pilots is besotted not just by jetlag but also ‘place lag’: is the non-biological sensation of disorientation and change when you start your day in daylight in London Heathrow, spend a few hours in the air, and arrive in San Francisco on the BA287 when the San Franciscan population is eating their dinner. It is the sense of wonder and adapting to change that is part of the process of air travel. The smells of New York espresso bars become replaced by the aroma of spices in the souks in Marrakech.

Yet such change does not happen instantly, nor in the space of a few hours at 42,000 feet. It all starts at the airport.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport (IATA Code: PVG) may look like something out of the 21st century on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a trip back in time to Maoist China. The smells of Shanghainese food traverse across the poorly ventilated departures area, and on a short trip from Shanghai to Seoul, it was in PVG where the place lag hit me. The contrast between PVG and Seoul Incheon – with its robots cleaning the floors – could not have been greater.

What’s more, the Chinese outward migration stamp is far from subtle: a huge red circle with the letters ‘EXIT’ printed in bold. Each time I have gone past border control upon exiting a country, I am left baffled. Geopolitical questions of the form “What country am I in?” fill my mind.


And what does it mean to be airside? Being airside in Pudong may mean one is physically on Chinese soil – but in terms of your sensory experiences, the airport has this wonderful way of gripping hold of you, making you feel part of its magic, as if in a state-less limbo. Neither here nor there, as you wait in trepidation for your flight.

Yet place lag does not just have to happen in the largest of airports, where exiting a country is met with a colourful passport stamp. L.F. Wade International Airport in Bermuda, with just 11 departures a day, is not the first airport that springs to mind when we think of ‘international’ airports.

But departing from Bermuda was an experience in itself – not just the walking onto the runway to board the aircraft, as if I were the US president boarding Air Force One, but the departures loung which made a doctor’s waiting room seem like a mansion. The scarcity of people, the lack of hustle and bustle, and sleepy pace of operations was a stark contrast to the chaotic airport of London Gatwick where my flight would take me.

In Bermuda, I also experienced place lag, but of a different sort. There was no border control upon exit, no rubber mark in my passport to show I had ‘left’ – but I knew I had left when I had managed to browse all of the duty free stores in five minutes, and stepped onto the runway to board my British Airways flight to London Gatwick. The multicoloured houses, the blue seas, and the adagio tempo of life in this airport, would all become a distant memory. As flight BA2232 descended into the grey expanse of Gatwick, the island airport that would greet me, accompanied by the noises of people waiting for delayed luggage, and the frustration of travellers unable to use the e-Passport gates, would cultivate a whole new sense of place.

Airports make us think about place not just as a fixed dot on a map, but as relational: a fusion of experiences and processes. It is a shame that it’s only when time stands still – when forced to, by a technological malfunction – that we devote time to think about the things that make the airport the place it is. This could be be the data sets, the sights, sounds, and smells, or the more emotional ways that airports alter how we think about place.

Airports are not mere spaces of nothingness: they are places of beauty, whether architecturally or emotionally. And it is important we do not ignore them in our contemporary, cosmopolitan obsession with travelling from one place to another.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”