Future Company: Banishing physical workplace brings perils as well as perks
In this age of mobile working, should businesses consider ditching their offices? Richard Leyland weighs up the pros and cons.
At the recent Workplace Trends conference, one speaker dared to ask: "Do we even need an office these days?"
I thought I'd pick up this contentious ball and run with it.
What would happen if a large multi-national company, which I'll call Company X, sold its real estate, dished out laptops and went completely mobile? Their new offices would be at homes and in connected 'third places', all around the city or town.
I'm only talking about knowledge workers here: those whose work could be done with a laptop and phone. If a worker actually makes something, it's a fair bet Starbucks isn't the ideal place to do it.
Let's look at the issues.
It's Day One. The move has long been advertised, no doubt in tandem with a change-management programme and a set of messaging guidelines. Still, a sizeable proportion of the workforce will be in no doubt that the company has taken something from them.
Nicholas Ridley, managing director of NCRE Consulting and former president of the British Council of Offices, is an expert in workplace environments. He told me to expect some dissent: "You've thrown them into an alien world and worse, they know they're being experimented on. Company X should expect a rash of resignations".
I would venture that interactive and mobile technology isn't yet up to scratch for businesses to ditch their offices, either. Nightmares will likely include ropey mobile and wi-fi signals, laptops with too-short battery lives and labyrinthine routes to the corporate VPN - if the company even has one.
Collaborative technology is improving apace. The best conferencing products are now close to replicating the face-to-face experience but in the main these are still office-to-office links.
Most of my working week is spent mobile working in London yet the only video conferencing I see is the occasional brave attempt by a fellow mobile worker at a Skype video call, whereupon the caller must explain the strange figures in the background and constant noise to a bemused call recipient.
It's not that mobile working technology doesn't do the job. It's more that we'd prefer to put up with its shortcomings for fixed periods.
Now consider the ergonomics of mobile work. The last decade has seen many offices transformed into high-quality working environments, with furniture and fittings to match.
The average coffee shop puts the sofas in the window and straight-back wooden chairs everywhere else. For many, the home office and kitchen table are one and the same. Fit for work and ergonomically sound? Unlikely.
Meetings and workplace productivity may not always go hand in hand but nobody thinks we could stop meetings altogether. The dispersed workforce at Company X simply delays face-to-face meetings. This isn't productive either.
As general manager of Group Property at mining giant Rio Tinto, Neil Usher has a remit to determine the shape and form of the company's future workplace.
"We bring our people into offices so that they can interact and collaborate. Unless you're an exclusively client-facing business, or until technology is significantly improved, I don't see an alternative to that," Usher said.
I've long advocated that the corporate world needs to open up to outside influence and networks. Could losing the office help shake us out of traditional offices and force us to engage with these wider networks?
Perhaps, but that's not really how these things work. As Usher points out: "I'm a workplace professional and I'm part of a supportive community of people like me. It's driven by virtual networks and groups. We meet sometimes at conferences and the like but I wouldn't find that group just by hanging out somewhere".
Loss of control
What is the office actually for? NCRE Consulting's Ridley notes that the office has traditionally been about exercising control. By sending its people out into the big wide world, is Company X able to maintain appropriate structure for workers?
Ridley is doubtful. "The financial meltdown made clear that companies had premises but not necessarily control over what went on inside. Companies can't regain that control if they don't even have their processes contained in an office.
"These processes that occur in buildings create the sort of good companies which can survive cyclical markets," he said.
Several other measures of 'good companies' become extremely difficult to achieve without bricks and mortar. Loyalty? A team ethos? An understanding of individual differences? Company X lacks the crucible in which these virtues are developed.
Chris Kane, head of workplace at the BBC, manages the Beeb's entire property portfolio. He describes his role: "It's about providing an environment where people can do their job well and productively." Seen against that definition, Company X appears guilty of a total abdication of responsibility.
For most of the 20th Century, office work was a pretty ordered affair. We were brought together to work. We knew the rules and we knew our place.
In the 21st century, such rigid rules have become obsolete. But new ways of working have developed faster than our ability to write new rules. It's a brave or foolish company that surrenders its employees to the office-less frontier.
Instead, companies should think in terms of task-based work settings. Working from home or from a coffee shop then become available options, chosen according to the task in hand.
The BBC's Kane advocates this approach. "We've defined seven categories of work, then defined space provision for each category. 'Mobile workers' and 'creative residents' may end up working offsite but we couldn't have a one-size-fits-all approach," he said.
This then is the sensible approach. Mobile working offers freedom for workers but should be seen as an option, chosen according to the work that needs to be done, rather than a given. For Company X, my bet is managing its business would become rather painful, rather quickly.
Richard Leyland is a futurist and writer, with a particular focus on the future of work. He writes at www.richardleyland.com or follow him on Twitter @leylandrichard.