Beyond Cyberspace: The Workplace of the Future

by
Anika Ellison Savage (formerly Audrey Schriefer )

This paper was published in Strategy and Leadership magazine, Jan/Feb 2001 edition.

 

 


Without leaving home, it is now possible to a visit the Library of Congress, order groceries, pay bills, order a car built to your specifications or pursue an advanced degree.  Many are also performing full-time jobs from the comfort and convenience of home. Telework1 eliminates time and distance constraints,   allowing work to be done “anytime, anywhere” in an array of non-traditional environments.

I recently conducted a study with a leading corporate research lab on the implications of technology on the workplace.  During the course of the research, my colleagues and I found ourselves working in hotel lounges, in borrowed offices and on planes.  Airline clubs have become so popular as office space “on the run” that some airlines have begun constructing these facilities in center-city locations, away from the airport.  Most hotels have incorporated desks and data connectors in guest rooms. Many are also providing collaborative workspace on “executive” floors, complete with support staff for customized services.

The shift from a production to an information economy means that a company’s success is increasingly dependent on intellectual capital.  Attracting and retaining “knowledge workers” is vital to sustained corporate health.  When a key employee leaves, not only is that person’s knowledge and experience gone but there is also a significant amount of expense and lost productivity while a replacement is recruited, hired and fully trained.  These costs far outweigh the cost of a workspace.  The continuing economic boom has created an extremely tight labor market and the work environment is being used as an important element in recruiting employees.  To support the new economic reality, organizational structures are evolving from command-and-control to self-organization models.  The old ‘butts in seats” mentality is rapidly shifting to a performance-based model with a strong focus on employee retention.

These developments in technology, shifts in the economy, and changes in organizational structure will have an enormous impact on the office of the future.  While the place of work is changing, the design of traditional office space lags woefully behind. Based on the research findings, there are several driving forces that will combine to reshape work and the workplace in many unexpected ways over the next few years.  Taken together, these forces assure that the office will not disappear entirely into cyberspace.
 
Camaraderie - While cyberspace is a fine place for bits and bytes, we continue to be physical and social creatures. Those who run successful businesses from their home report that their biggest challenge is loss of social contact.
 
Trust - The study shows that trust still depends, initially, on face-to-face communication.  Once that trust has been established, a business relationship can be maintained without physical presence for some period of time.  However, if the relationship is ongoing, we had better plan on occasional face time simply to reestablish trust, even if the work itself doesn't require it.
 
Spontaneity - Another reason for physical proximity is that information flows more freely.  Overheard conversations can be a source of learning. Insights on a thorny problem might come from an unexpected person.  Questions you might not think to ask could be answered.  The corporate culture is developed and communicated largely through actions, stories and casual conversation.  This spontaneous flow of information is extremely difficult to duplicate, even with advanced communications technology.
 
Communities of Interest - The explosion of chat rooms and web sites designed to meet a plethora of specific but very diverse interests points to the widespread desire for communication. The Institute for Research on Learning in California has identified “communities of practice” within the corporate environment which recognize the contributions of many players and extend well beyond the designated team.
 
Project Teaming - Following the model of the motion picture and construction industries, more work will be accomplished by teams that are formed specifically for a project and then disbanded. 
 
 

Implications

 
The office of the future must accommodate the need for personal contemplative space but will increasingly focus on the quality of interactive spaces -- the primary reason for people coming together in physical space.   These spaces can become quite rich in their variety of form, detail and functionality.  They may be in rural or urban areas and can be located in new or renovated historic buildings. 
 
Let's consider a few aspects of these work environments which will be continuously evolving to meet the particular needs of the business and the tasks performed at a particular time:
 
Universal Workspace - In the past, workplaces were often designed for the type of work being performed; architects had their drawing boards, newspaper editors their typewriters, and scientists their labs.   Today, workers are sitting in front of nearly identical computer monitors worldwide.  The software might be tailored to the task, but the hardware has become largely indistinguishable.
 
Ubiquitous access - As individual workspace requirements become uniform in terms of hardware and environmental requirements, personal productivity tools will continue to become more portable, with customized software tools and databases.  This may lead to personalized access accounts that allow us to use a wide variety of commonly available interface devices over a network.   We will not need to carry equipment with us, since these devices will be readily available in both public and private domains.  
 
Decentralization - Communication technology will increasingly make possible smaller facilities located closer to employees, suppliers and customers. The home or virtual office will be used for work that requires longer periods of quiet, concentrated effort.  Corporations will reduce their physical presence by relying heavily on electronic communications among employees and with suppliers and customers.
 
Adaptive Reuse - Wireless communication technology for both voice and data will allow the creative reuse of historic structures that might otherwise become obsolete.  For example, many historic office buildings in downtown Glasgow stand empty because they cannot be refitted to accommodate today's hard-wired communications technology.  Wireless technology will give them a new lease on life.
 
The best office spaces we saw in the course of the research had been converted from residences.  The variety of room sizes and the flow of space between them adapt well to an office environment.  Examples include the branch office of a large telecommunication company, an Internet service provider and a data center for an international brokerage house 2.  The living room becomes an open office, the dining room serves as a conference room, bedrooms are used as shared offices or small meeting rooms and the kitchen is the gathering place for informal conversation, lunches, impromptu meetings and after-hours gatherings.   Fixed elements define the space while allowing a flow of activity and information.  As the neighbors go off to their jobs, the employees of these firms fill their parking spaces and patronize local businesses and restaurants. 
 
Flexibility - Teams require office space that can be quickly reconfigured with flexible interior fittings to support a team's requirements.  Individual offices will be dedicated to fewer employees.  Most will claim a space for an hour, a day or a year as the work demands.  Personal equipment will fit in a briefcase or be worn as clothing.  Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab are designing prototypes of smart fashions for the near future3.  Family photos are being digitized as screen savers to personalize interim offices
 
 

Reintegration

 
Work and Community - Throughout history, work took place within the community. During the industrial revolution, these functions were separated in time and place.  Now, technology is providing new ways to recombine these two important aspects of our lives. As a commuter for many years, I felt disconnected from my neighbors and community.  As a home-based consultant, I had the opportunity to use walks, shopping, errands and lunchtimes to become much more involved in town, church and school activities.
 
Work and Family - Remember when common wisdom held that quality and low cost were mutually exclusive? The Japanese car changed that paradigm.  Similarly, there is common a belief that productivity allows no place for family or personal interests in the workplace.  Many companies are now finding the opposite to be true. We all bring our lives into the workplace, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  By denying this reality, we create inhumane work environments.  One manager in a large organization, for example, has chosen to telecommute several days each week so that he can be more involved in his young son's life.  We are finally beginning to recognize that organizations are comprised of people -- what a revelation!
 
 

Location, Location, Location

 
As organizations truly recognize that employees are their greatest resource, firms will increasingly locate in areas that are attractive to key employees.
 
Revitalization of the urban core --  Several forces are coalescing to support a return to city centers.  There is evidence that the lifestyles of both the Y generation and semi-retired “boomers” create a preference to live and work where access to colleagues, culture and recreation is more readily available.  New economy workers with “7 by 24” work styles want to live in areas with a strong technology infrastructure and access to broadband technology.  Companies will cluster in metropolitan areas with a high-tech employment base, putting upward pressure on real estate values.
 
Getting away from it all – There will also be a migration to rural areas as a “foil” to the urban world.  With the enhanced ability to work in multiple locations, those who want to establish themselves professionally now have the opportunity to locate in places that were formerly inaccessible.   The most attractive areas will be on the peripheries of high-tech metropolitan areas and in university towns.
 
 

Conclusion

 
If work is not destined to reside in cyberspace, what forms will the workplace demand?  There are basically two types of space that are required for knowledge workers; thinking space that is conducive to individual concentrated effort and collaborative space where teams can come together.  Thinking space is increasingly moving out of the office environment.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that the corporate office will become simply a meeting place. There is a dynamic that requires a flow between these two types of space, a back and forth rhythm that happens more naturally when these spaces are near each other. The seamless flow between interactive and contemplative space is facilitated by proximity. 
 
A third type of space emerges from the interface between these two.  This is epitomized by the hallway conversation, those serendipitous moments when ideas flow together to create something new and unexpected.  When two or more people are working closely together, the overheard conversation or casual request for information may be seen as a disruption but can actually add a great deal of value.   This type of spontaneous interaction is difficult to replicate in cyberspace.
 
In the future, we will see multiple models for conducting work. The right environment for that work is highly dependent on the type of work being performed, the size and structure of the organization, and the corporate culture.  Workplace design and location should be used to support corporate goals and objectives.  If a corporation is attempting to create a culture shift or introduce a new business process, the office environment needs to reinforce that message, not compete with it.  Corporate strategy must integrate facilities, human resources and technology for sustained organizational success.

Telework is a term used in Europe and Asia to refer to paid work performed from home with the aid of computing and telecommunications technology.  In the U.S., the term more commonly used is telecommuting.

Another example is a network of “telecottages” established by the Scottish Development Authority equipped for drop-in workers to perform electronic “piecework” for corporate sponsors. 

Check out the musical jacket at http://www.media.mit.edu/hyperins/levis/ 


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