Reimagining “the Office”


One of the most debated apolitical questions about the post COVID-19 scenario is whether the institution called “the office” will ever be restored to its former glory.

The 1980 Prediction

Four decades ago, Alvin Toffler pointing to the then emergent changes lamented in his 1980 book, The Third Wave:

“Though work has grown more abstract and less concrete, the actual offices in which this work is being done are actually modeled directly after Second [industrial] Wave factories”

He predicted the “death of the secretary” based on the growing penetration of the predecessors of personal computers, the word-processors. He talked of the embryonic advances in the telecommunication technologies that “instead of moving papers, […] moves electronic pulses“. But then, he made a revelation that for most of us, who see the idea of work-from-home as a 2020 invention, may be a bit startling …

“All told, it means that fully 35 to 50 percent of the entire work force in this advanced manufacturing center [reference to Western Electric and Hewlett-Packard] can even now do most, if not all, their work at home …”

And, mind well, Alvin Toffler’s observations pre-dated the advent and all-pervasive spread of the Internet and mobile technologies! The book quotes Wall Street Journal to point out that many companies including United Airlines and McDonald were already allowing some of their executives to work from home. This was the beginning of telecommuting:

the key question is: when will the cost of installing and operating telecommunications equipment fall below the present cost of commuting“.

Impediments

However, in spite of the progress in telecommunications as well as the mobile technologies (Toffler did not predict mobile eco-system), work-from-home has been quite languid in its proliferation. Toffler was directionally correct but the work-from-home “revolution” that he talked about never materialized … at least not until COVID-19 forced the issue!

There were many impediments:

  1. Though, telecommunications made rapid advances, it was not easy to profitably build the “last mile connectivity”, especially in a vast county with diverse terrain like US. Lack of robust last mile network along with ever-growing demand on the bandwidth due to increased digitization, necessitated assembling all workforce in a well-connected better equipped centralized workplace, i.e. the office. In last decade, however, last mile has passed the “tipping point” in most metropolitan areas and their suburbs.
  2. Maintaining security of one’s digital data – a field that was still emerging – was not easy for a dispersed workforce. Not that data is completely hack- proof today but this problem was addressed by another computing revolution. People refer it by the name of the “cloud”! Most of the data that corporate world deals with is already stored in remote data centers; i.e. the cloud. Cloud is cheaper, scalable, and safer! Many of our applications are now offered via the cloud as Software as a Service (SaaS). A centralized workplace has become more or less redundant for the safekeeping of our business data.
  3. Humans don’t just read the spoken or the written language. We read a lot more from each other’s gestures and facial expressions. These visual clues provide context to the words we hear or see. This requires us to be together in-person when transacting business. Easy-to-use video conferencing tools have created an alternative to in-person meetings to achieve this.
  4. Last but by no means the least, human creativity is oftentimes greatly enhanced by cross-pollination of ideas and impromptu collaboration, which undoubtedly is greatly nurtured by in-person interactions. Well before emergence of the modern office, salons provided similar assembly that fostered discourse leading to significant social, political, artistic, and scientific advances during Enlightenment (1685-1815). Not all offices necessarily promoted creativity. In fact, during the early part of the twentieth century, offices and hierarchical organizations were often accused of killing or suppressing the creativity. But, some offices, famously purported in the TV serial, Mad Men, did became centers of creative excellence. In those cases, offices did play as important a role as universities in helping newcomers climb the steep learning curves.
Salon of ladies by A. Bosse

The Renewed Alarm

The Economist published an article titled “Death of the Office” in its June/July 2020 edition. While its title screams of the imminent demise of the august institution that “delineates much of our lives“, it concludes with a bit of an ambiguous tone:

No Skype chat can replicate what Heatherwick calls the “chemistry of the unexpected” that you get in person. Offices may not fill the pages of poetry anthologies but, says Kellaway, they “can be as moving as anywhere on Earth. Because what moves us is not sitting at our computer, it’s the relationship that we have with people”.

Mid-May of this year, the Financial Times published the chronology of the “Rise and Fall of Office”. Similar to the Economist, FT too traces the origin of the institute to the 1731 East India Company workplace that had “300 clerks, notaries and accountants scribbling figures into vast leather-bound ledgers,” FT quoted writer William Dalrymple. FT’s historical account is one of the most informative accounts of the lifespan of this institution… from its colonial origin to its rise during 20th century alongside the rise of mega corporations to its struggle to survive in recent times (see quote below).

Silicon Valley has pioneered campuses that conspire to keep young employees from leaving. While others try to make home more like the office, the Valley has made the office more like home — dress down, bring your dog.

FT concludes that work-from-home “may fail to foster the flexible collaboration on which the knowledge economy relies” and that “We will go back to the office, but not as often“.

The Epiphany

In 2020, the entire office-going humanity was forced to experience a completely alien reality for an extended period spanning multiple months. For the first time ever since the birth of the Office, all the office-goers all over the globe had to abandon their designated stations for not weeks but for many months!

This, indeed, was a tectonic shift for a reason that is often overlooked and understated. In the past, when catastrophes such as wars or pandemics hit, mankind had to choose between the fire of mass death on one hand or the frying pan of a grinding halt to the economic activity. We never really had a middle option to continue “work” and yet remain locked in our safe habitats. All of a sudden, mankind woke up to the technological progress it had made unbeknownst to itself! Technology had finally advanced and converged to a point where it was now completely possible for most of the working population to remain at home and still keep the wheels of economy spinning.

The Office Reimagined

Agreed that we all survived much of 2020 using video conferencing instead of the air travel, study table (or at times, the dining table) instead of the office desk, and virtual happy hours instead of after office hours chats over beer. But, does that mean we are all at last ready to kill this 200-year old beast called “the office”?

Yes, if viewed in the traditional sense. In fact, 2020 has landed a solid punch on the jaws of this aging institute and has already left it on the floor gasping for air. But can we really declare it dead? Probably not. More likely, the office will morph into a hub that connects many different home offices, a place where the knowledge-workers, if and when they seek in-person interactions, can gather to create and exchange ideas, make deals, and break bread. It will again move back to be an “ideation commons” – a meeting place where we gather to do what humans innately conditioned to do – to socialize. The rest can happen from home … in fact, more efficiently!

I see the future office to be small, open, and flexible with a lots of “huddle areas” built around a central cafeteria where people can plug in their laptops, share screens, and exchange ideas. These offices will not be hierarchical with the window offices for the office dignitaries, corner office for the Big Boss, and small nameless cubicles for the upstarts. With people only selectively using them as gathering grounds, such an earmarked hierarchical architecture would be a huge waste! Instead, there would be many nameless workplaces of different sizes and shapes that one or more visiting employees can “rent” as per their needs and entitlement. A 3-2 or 2-3 work-week format can work for the most where 3 or 2 days one can choose to work-from-home and remaining workdays can be coordinated with colleagues as the “office days”. Finally, society will achieve a much better work-life balance that it had lost ever since the beginning of the traditional office era.

This will be the beginning of the “salon office” era that may lead the mankind to a new enlightenment period!

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