Rethinking Office Work
Why do you go the office? I’m not asking why you work. I’m asking why you go to the office to work.
Think about it. If we could all work from home or from the Coffee Bean close to home, we would improve productivity, strengthen the family and solve the traffic problem all in one fell swoop. Seriously, why do we go to the office?
Apart from it being required by the narrow-minded, nitpicking, nabobs of negativism in Human Resources, I used to go to the office because:
a) Somebody might call my office direct line.
b) My desktop computer and all my papers were at the office.
c) I had lots of meetings with other people at the office.
If any of these reasons still apply to you, my next question is: What millennium are you living in?
Nobody calls office landlines anymore, with the exception maybe of your grandmother when she tries to find out why your late, as in deceased, grandfather is working overtime at Monte de Piedad. Anybody who knows you or knows someone who knows you will call your cellphone. Truth be told, people rarely make audio calls nowadays. It’s easier and safer in many ways to send a text message.
Or an email, which you can send and receive on your laptop, tablet or smartphone wherever you might be. Even graphic artists and video editors are no longer tethered to desktop machines. And with decent free wi-fi in every coffeeshop and mall, you can jack in to the matrix without ever touching a jack.
All files are in your own hard drives or floating around in the cloud, accessible from anywhere. I understand that some ancient board directors might still think that YouTube is a plumbing fixture, but if you are even now printing out multiple copies of documents for meetings and for your files, you deserve to be sentenced to spend the next six months planting trees in the Sierra Madres.
As for meetings, well, it depends on the real reason for the meeting. You want to see the other guy’s face when you drop the bomb? Skype or Facetime is all you need. You want to do some socializing aside from meeting? Go out to lunch. Preferably, have—what else?—a long lunch. You need to collaborate closely with a sizeable group of people on a regular basis? Ahhhh, for this you may need an office.
So there it is. Of the three reasons for going to an office, apparently only letter (c), and only under a limited set of circumstances, remains valid.
What then should the modern office space look like? One big conference room? Not really, no. Let’s take a look at the typical conference room. It’s a big table with office chairs arrayed around it and at one end something for presentations—whiteboard, projector screen or wide screen TV. In other words, it was designed for one person at a time to hold forth on a topic while everyone else sits uncomfortably preparing for their turns to talk. You can go from office to office and you’ll see the same set-up regardless of the kind of work they do or the different types of people who work there.
I think the key is to understand the concept of collaboration. We want people to “co-labor” or work together. Everybody should have something to contribute and should be encouraged to do so. Significantly, we have to recognize that each person in the group is unique. After all, if the team is made up of clones, there’s no benefit from working together. The output of the group would be no different from the output of one of the members.
In order to be conducive to collaboration, therefore, our new office spaces should be comfortable for a variety of people with distinct working preferences. Keep the conference table and office chairs for the guys who do their best work in that setting, but open up the space so that other people can stand up and move around. Let’s have lounge chairs that aren’t on casters and arm chairs or sofas within the discussion circle. I like to have food nearby and coffee readily available. (To get my juices going for this article I had two snacks with soft drinks. Hehe.) Some people organize their thoughts more clearly if they can draw all over the walls. Others stick post-it notes, unstick them, then stick them back again in a different order. A few might need to pull out of full engagement with the group and spend a few hours off to one corner working alone. It’s all part of the collaborative process.
I imagine flexible, eclectic workplaces that take their cues from the diversity of the people in them. Forget the cookie-cutter cubicles and exclusive spaces. They’re going the way of IBM Selectrics, Mickey Mouse neckties and Samsonite briefcases.
Where do we do our individual, non-collaborative work? Where do we keep our personal things? At home!
Now if only we can convince those loyal, loving, liberal-minded great leaders of men in Human Resources.