Is the office dead? No, not that TV show, the real place that many of us have worked in over the years.
What got me started on this was reading on line a posting from a public sector facilities management colleague talking about some of the alternative ways of working and plans to do things that I’d done, also in the public sector 15 years or so ago. There’s nothing new under the sun, but in the same week I also read something on the mayor’s plans for transport in London whereby, if my memory serves me correctly, they were talking about catering for a significant growth in the numbers of people coming to work in central London in the coming years.
Now, as I mentioned above, I can recall being involved with a working party with HR and IT colleagues many years ago through which we did all sorts of things including drop in centres, hot desks, shared desks, hotelling and much more. We changed the working hours of buildings and even worked with business neighbours, bus companies and local councils to change public transport routes and timetables, almost eliminating the rush hour at one location, green commuting being high in the agenda before I remember hearing that as a term.
Charting my own work style and pattern, I find it a little ironic looking back that, having got far enough up the greasy pole to have landed the corner office and a share in a secretary, I gave up that office for something smaller, but in the middle of the action, then shifted myself into the open plan, then to a shared desk before, in about 1999, becoming truly location independent, i.e.; I worked out of the back of the car, hotel lobbies, supermarket coffee bars or anywhere that I could find, but this would often be, say it quietly, an office.
I can remember 30 odd years ago a lot of trumpeting about the paperless office and yet that is still nowhere near a reality. Yes, we have embraced email, but it has done nothing to eliminate paper; we’ve seen more success in that goal from electronic invoicing and payment systems. Photocopiers and printers still proliferate with all of their other environmental impacts besides paper consumption.
Our offices have certainly changed over the 40+ years that I’ve been at work, but I would argue that this change has come from social factors as much as from technological and operational ones. We don’t have the same hierarchical structures that we used to. Work is much less formal and I believe that it will be the social factor that does as much to shape the future of the office as anything else.
Humans are sociable animals, and there are synergies that come from having us in one place. Yes you can do that virtually, but the dynamics of having us in one place at the same time can’t be beaten, especially when you add the ingredient of the infrastructure that an office provides.
Technology will play its part, but that will be shaped by the demand of the people. All of the gadgets that we enjoy and the way that we use them is coming from us folks. They aren’t being forced on us; the way we use the current generation of phones, computers and other gizmos shapes the next wave, and that will be with us soon enough.
My belief is that the same factors apply to the way we use offices. I don’t know what tomorrow’s office will look like, but there will be one, I’m sure.