Is The Office Obsolete
by Robby Slaughter
We Need a Remote-Work Revolution
If you work in an office today, there’s a strong possibility that you would get a lot more done if you didn’t have to work in that office. It turns out that, although we think of glass towers containing cubicles and filing cabinets as the places we go to accomplish something, the “office” as most of us know it, is a terrible place to get anything done.
The primary reason, as entrepreneur Jason Fried notes in an editorial for CNN.com, is that “the modern office has become an interruption factory.” Fried is painfully correct. Workplaces aren’t like school libraries, where silence is golden and quiet intellectual pursuit is the foundation of progress.
Instead, our offices are buzzing with conversation, ringing phones, shuffling papers, whirring copy machines, squeaky hinges and clunking footfalls. If you are lucky enough to have your own walls, you can escape some of the chaos by closing your door, however most of us work in cubes and must battle dozens of interruptions per hour.
Interruptions and Overhead
Traditionally, much of the reason we work in offices is inertia. The high cost of equipment and the utility of centralized files means that it made sense for people to be physically located together. Yet today, this logic no longer applies. Computer technology can make any bit of company data available practically anywhere on the planet, at blazingly fast speeds on seemingly any network connection.
Furthermore, the per-employee hardware investment is now significantly less than in years past, while the quality of the work environment in home offices is often far superior to that in office buildings. For many of us, the desk chair, the computer, and the workspace we have in our residences may actually be superior to the ones we have in our company office spaces. It certainly should be no surprise that the workspaces we create for ourselves at home are often far quieter and more comfortable than those specified on our behalf in office buildings.
And it’s not as if we spend that much time at the office collaborating in any meaningful way. According to the New York Times, we spend an average of only 5.6 hours per week in meetings and 71 percent of us report that these sessions are “unproductive.” Most of the work that we do today is solitary and most of the value that we provide requires concentration. Office planners and productivity consultants have known since publication of the BOSTI studies in the 1980’s that distractions and interruptions significantly detract from employee productivity. So why suffer the interruptions and overhead expense of an office, if most of the time, most of us don’t need or want it anyway?
Keeping Up Appearances
Some firms have embraced the true nature of work and shifted away from the obsession with employee co-location. A new trend is for employees who formerly worked in crowded and noisy call centers full of cubicles is to transition into “distributed call-centers,” where employees can be virtual-based customer representatives from anywhere with an Internet connection. Hundreds of marketing, design and software development firms in this area operate successfully without requiring their employees to put in a full week in a physical office building.
In fact major US corporations like American Express, the Hartford, and IBM are sending thousands of their customer relations personnel to “remote offices,” which are most often in their homes, because they have discovered that 40-50% of their office spaces go unused on a daily basis. These firms report their employee retention has increased between 60% to 95%, and some claim productivity improvements of 50%. Yet despite these benefits, many organizations aren’t even considering a change..
The most fundamental reason many companies have not shifted the brunt of office work away from traditional office buildings is because our business culture is based more on assessing the appearance of productivity than on actual results. People humming about in offices look busy, even though in reality they are constantly interrupting one another and struggling against the inconvenience and expense to the employee of commuting and set work hours.
Plus, if people are in the office, the bosses know they are working. Or do they? The ultimate, unstoppable advantage of remote work is that there is no pretense. You can’t look busy if no one can see you. All you can do is produce results. And isn’t that we want?
By Robby Slaughter