Thursday 22 October 2009

The corporate office - do we need it?

30 years ago, employees had to come to the office to do their work. This happened simply because the office was the place that contained all the tools and resources needed to accomplish work-related tasks. This included computers, telephones, fax machines, meeting rooms, copiers, documents, archives, project files, administrative support and a range of other resources. While we 30 years ago moved people to work, we are now, by means of increased portability of work, able to move work to people. However, offices in a variety of ways still look like they did 30 years ago, despite the evolution of work-related tools available outside the boundaries of the office. The cost of offices has also in many places increased substantially over the last 30 years. If everything else has changed, why are offices still the same?

A little while ago, I gave a short presentation at the third seminar in the Global Mobility Network, hosted by Dr. Marie Puybaraud, Director of Global Workplace Innovation and Dr. Anne Marie McEwan, Director of the Smart Work Company. The seminar took place in the inspirational atmosphere of One Alfred Place, and the topic of the seminar was "Workplace to Zero?". I was asked to elaborate on collaboration, social cohesion and how to design environments which encourage collaboration. This blog post is a short summary of some of the concepts discussed, and how they relate to some of points raised by the keynote speaker of the event, Dr. Frank Duffy, author of Work and the City and founder of DEGW. Some pictures from the event can be seen on Steve Marshall's Photo-Dialogue blog.

30 years ago, the office was a vehicle of efficiency and effectiveness. The office enabled workers to do things they couldn't do at home (related to effectiveness), and it enabled them to accomplish those tasks faster (related to efficiency) than they could at home or in other contexts. Fast-wind forward 30 years and this has all changed. Technology has made it possible to accomplish most work related tasks in multiple contexts outside the boundaries of office, and many knowledge workers state that flexible work arrangements or working outside the office improves productivity - in essence they are saying that for many processes, the office is actually limiting rather than boosting productivity. While not suitable for all, cloud computing solutions, open source software and Web 2.0 technologies represent viable alternatives for many organisations. Wireless Internet is affordable and rapidly becoming abundant, and together with inexpensive hardware solutions such as e.g. netbooks, the required costs for setting up shop is, for practical purposes, near zero. This low market entry barrier represents a major power shift from large corporates to individual knowledge workers. Moreover, it is also interesting how many of the tools that knowledge workers use now belong to each individual rather than the employer. For many people, professional and social relationships and community membership are in many ways becoming the professional "home base" in times where employment is becoming increasingly dynamic.

Dr. Duffy provided a very useful perspective when he argued that the apparent inflexibility in the way we create and operate offices is due to an imbalance between the supply side and the demand side, and that there is a supply side that keeps delivering packaged solutions similar to previous projects, whereas the demand side receives little attention, since projects are more oriented towards delivery than a proper assessment of requirements. Some of the reasoning behind this can be found in his excellent Harvard Design Review article Lumbering to Extinction in the Digital Field.

Dr. Duffy also raised the issue of justification and how one would argue to justify the need for a permanent workplace if one had access to "the perfect ICT solution". This is an interesting perspective, for in many cases, the corporate office functions as a reliable, "last resort" solution in cases where ICT solutions fail to deliver according to expectations. The reasons behind this commonly observed failure include, but are not limited to lack of interoperability, firewall issues, network capacity, policy restrictions, unavailability of shared resources, and a range of other issues. It is interesting how we still in many ways appear to trust physical logistics and even airplane travel to a greater extent than rich virtual forms of interactions, despite the hassle involved with the former.

In my talk, I offered some perspectives on some key characteristics of today's knowledge intensive organisations, and how much time knowledge workers spend on collaborative activities (interactions); typically in the range of 40-80 percent - and rising. Moreover, for leaders, experts and people with a coordinating role, it is most definitely in the upper range. Many executives I have interviewed say these average numbers are actually quite conservative if one includes all types of collaboration and communication activities, including the full range of planned and unplanned interactions taking place in both collocated and technology-mediated contexts. Again, the role of the corporate office becomes the question - as research demonstrates that not only is an increasing portion of our individual work activities becoming portable and computer-based, but this is true for interactions as well.

I would argue that a really good workplace is one that enables you to do something which you cannot do anywhere else. And currently, many workplaces fail to deliver on this criterion. Some very significant examples exist (see for instance the Concurrent Design Facility of the European Space Agency, StatoilHydro's Integrated Operations resource page for the oil & gas industry, the Management Cockpit of Siemens Belux - reported by SAP) and a range of other built-for-purpose solutions that are characterised by distinct collaboration concepts that involve an agreed (but still flexible) process, a set of operating principles, a set of enabling technologies and a service concept that ensures reliability and support when needed. Apart from these examples, offices are fairly generic, and there are few, if any, differences in terms of effectiveness. Some solutions may be more efficient than others, but these improvements are in any case marginal, and add little in terms of creating a competitive advantage. I would therefore like to postulate the following:

The current trend where the office is optimised for efficiency... rapidly making the office obsolete because...

...the things you can achieve in the office you can achieve, often equally well or even better, in other contexts, and...
...the office starts at an efficiency disadvantage due to...
...logistics and commuting times, and because... comes with a hefty price tag, e.g. compared to shared office solutions such as One Alfred Place.

The only viable long term value proposition for the office is therefore... that reinstates the workplace as a place where you do things you can’t do anywhere else...

...which enables new levels of knowledge worker effectiveness...
...or one where the efficiency gains offset the additional cost of the office compared to alternative solutions.

The cost cutting approach is tempting, but not sustainable – because its concepts can easily be copied. The value adding approach requires a systematic investment in analysis of potential benefits from collaboration, team productivity and collaboration barriers, and new technologies and work practices supporting seamless interactions across time and space.

This route is less trivial, but true competitiveness is not, I believe, built on doing the exact same things everybody else is doing. If we want to be different, we actually have to do something differently. Positive differentiation does not emerge out of the blue, it is the result of disciplined, systematic effort.

So, therefore...
...”The future of the office? Improve it, or abandon ship”

Updated 5 November: