A Business Technology Place

Death to the Office?

Do interconnected electronic devices eliminate the need for the traditional office?

I read “Death to the office” and stopped to think. Wait, did I read that right? Yes, it said “death to the office” because of commute to work options in the new digital age. The traditional office of the 20th century is history. Then I read it again in a piece by Andrew Keen of CNN entitled Five reasons the office will become redundant. Keen’s argument is that advancement of technology, ease of access to the internet, and increase in commute times, make the office unnecessary as an everyday place to conduct work (My one sentence interpretation and summary).

The argument reminds me of the paperless office idea from the 1980s. Remember when the latest buzz was the traditional office would become paperless? The amount of paper may be reduced, but we certainly are not paperless. In addition to the physical evidence next to any network printer area, the local IT support tickets for printer help show that we are not paperless. So is the paperless office a myth, novelty, or aspiration?

One reality is today that most organizations today have employees that are 100% remote or that work-from-home at least one day a week. Will that change? I don’t think so.

What about job types?

Sales positions or jobs that act as an individual agent to create work already have limited use for a traditional office. That’s nothing new. Sales employees are compensated to find business and maintain client relationships. The office has existed through the years for the knowledge workers and the administrative workers to have a place to gather. In the past electronic interconnectivity didn’t exist.

Obviously jobs like manufacturing or those that require physical access to a piece of equipment that is not mobile are not subject to remote working. The office will continue to exist for these workers. Can departments like Marketing, IT, and Finance operate as individual agents connected by electronic devices? I realize employees can produce work from just about anywhere as long as they have a computing device and connectivity to the central systems of their company. But I also know that these same workers need to inter-play with members of their department and other departments to get work done.

Remote working can be done. It has advantages. But’s it not always the best choice.

Email, phone calls, video calls, and instant messaging are all viable communication mediums. But they have their own set of challenges:

  • Multi-tasking on phone calls
  • Misinterpreted emails
  • Unclear emails that results in threads that span more than five messages
  • Video call avoidance because the employee does not like to be seen on camera (no makeup)
  • The time to type instant messaging instead of just finding the person and talking it through

Nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting with team members to whiteboard solutions, diagnose problems, or clarify the needs to solve a situation. Team unity isn’t the same when it’s build through email as it is when team members meet each day.

Location. Location. Location.

I’ve held a job that was 40 miles from home one-way and one that was 9 miles from home one-way. I know what it’s like to spend two hours each day in the car commuting back-and-forth to work. It’s natural to favor remote options if this is the situation of the employee. It’s also helpful to work from home in this situation. When I lived far from the office and worked from home I would spend those extra two hours doing work rather than something else. Yes it helped productivity.

But workers that live close to the office may not have the same feeling. In my current job, I’m only 20 minutes from the office. I go to the office five days a week. I prefer it. It gives me the ability to manage, interact, and build relationships much more than if I were at home.

Don’t kill the office just yet.

Businesses need an office. They need it to bring workers together to create unity and a sense of shared purpose. Mission statements are easier fulfilled by people working together side-by-side, not by people working as virtual free agents across a digital divide.  Brands are established by people not machines and programs. So let’s keep the office around a little longer.

  • Jeb

    I’m hearing more about getting people back together in an office… and getting rid of cubes and offices to force (allow for) interaction with co-workers but even with local businesses and consumers. The CEO of Zappos calls it “collisions” and designs office space so that people get in each others’ way. Other examples: Yahoo’s new ban on remote, Apple’s Campus 2, and a number of other smaller innovative companies I’ve followed like Panic.

    I’ve enjoyed my own transition to GP Floor 26 and our open office, although the commute’s a bear.

    http://www.panic.com/blog/the-panic-office/

    http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml