Un-Boxing the Office Un-Boxing the Office

By Phil Gibbs on August 31, 2010

Why do the majority of professionals, managers and executives still work in boxes? Oh yea, we call them “offices”, but they are basically boxes. And yes, the top has been cut out of some and we call them cubicles, but a box is a box.

The fact that this form of office still exists today is testament to our amazing ability to resist change. I am reminded of a statement by the principal at one of my children’s schools a few years ago. He said the reason school classrooms were the same size they have been for years is because that is the size they cut logs when building one-room schoolhouses.

How ridiculous! Schools are so backwards. They are not on the cutting edge like business and industry. Just look at our supply chain technology, mass customization, process management and sophisticated CRM systems. But, maybe we need to take a close look at the places where we work.

If the basic form of the office is a box, we have to ask the question—does it still serve the function it once served? Or more poignant, does it makes sense to sit in a box to do work today? Perhaps in the past it did. There were several factors that caused us to embrace the box as an office—a place to do work.

  • · Organizations were characterized by hierarchy and employees’ value was defined by where they fit in the hierarchy. The person’s “office” was the clearest symbol of hierarchical position. The first hurdle was just getting an office, then a larger office, and then of course the coveted corner office. But it didn’t stop there, an office on a higher floor obviously meant a higher position. How could we have known where a person fit in the hierarchy without the office?
  • · Once a person had an office, the next challenge in proving their worth was what they put on the walls. And you have to have a box to have walls. First of course were the degrees—the more the better. Then the certificates and recognitions. And of course the pictures with important people. Oops, and don’t forget the pics of the family, although usually they were on the desk close to where the person sat—come on, lighten up, most of us have been there.
  • · Next, they need their stuff, particularly files. Some were in file cabinets but many were in stacks that weren’t filed and would never be filed, much less found. In fact some people created multiple stacks of files that weren’t filed so they could feel at least somewhat organized. But the point wasn’t to find them, but to demonstrate to those who came into their box that they were busy and were doing lots of work, which is what you are supposed to do in a box.
  • · And then there was the need for private meetings. They would schedule meetings with their boss, who had a larger box, and then individual meetings with the people who reported to them, who of course had smaller boxes. They had to communicate clearly and sometimes confidentially. They certainly didn’t want someone else to know what they were doing. After all people with smaller boxes were always looking for ways to take someone’s larger box.
  • · I almost forgot the name on the door of the box. That was really important–particularly important when they were out of the office for a week or two, so that others would not forget them. And of course they needed a place for the mail to be stacked so they would feel important when they got back to the office.

OK, I got carried away. Or did I? Organizations that continue to function like this simply will not survive in today’s environment. Form should follow function and organizations that thrive today do not function even remotely like this.

A few years ago we were talking about the demise of middle management. As computers became ubiquitous, the need for middle managers, whose job was primarily to communicate with other managers, fairly quickly became antiquated.

Today, the discussion is not about middle management, but about the whole organization as we know it. Now, as mobile, smart communication devices become ubiquitous, the concept of the organization is beginning to change, and change rapidly. The need for people to be in one place to transact business is history. Organizational boundaries are blurred—it is almost impossible to know who is an employee or contractor or vendor or consultant. Multiple small organizations and individuals may come together for short periods to accomplish big projects.

The hierarchy is being replaced by a fluid, organic structure driven by the task at hand. Value to the organization is based on contribution to the task, not position in a hierarchy—if there were a hierarchy. Work and life are no longer dichotomies. Rather, we are able to work anywhere, anytime that the task requires. Instead of work interfering with vacation, we can go on vacation to work.

OK, maybe that is a stretch. But the point is that the concept of work and organization is fundamentally changing. If the function is changing, the form also must change—a box is no longer a form that serves us well.

So what is the form of the next generation office that matches the new way we organize and work?

  • · The new “office” is not a box. Rather, it should have an open, comfortable and inviting design. It should be a place people want to go, not a place they feel like they have to go to “work”. What is this, a resort? Wouldn’t b e a bad place to work, would it?
  • · The office should have multiple spaces designed to meet the task at hand. That may mean a casual chair with a tablet arm, a cafÈ table for two, a lounge chair on an open balcony or a private meeting room for ten, with video conference technology for connecting six more around the world.
  • · The spaces should be shared by multiple users. Managers and professionals are on the move. Their traditional boxes with their names on the door generally sit empty much of the time—they are traveling, in meetings, on vacation or at a coffee shop. What a waste of energy and resources, not to mention construction costs. The new concept office may be the ultimate green initiative.
  • · It should be technology rich. People carry most of their technology with them, but they still need group video conferencing technology, high-speed wireless internet, access to electrical power and occasionally access to paper copying and printing. Rather than paper file cabinets, the new office should provide easy access to electronic filing—the type that doesn’t take up space and files can be searched and actually found. And yes, the pictures of the family can go on the screen saver.
  • · The new office must be a place. The temptation is to think virtual. Yes, technologically we are capable of working from any where, any time. Sounds good but place and community are still important. We have tried virtual at the extremes and it leads to cyber insanity—need I only say FarmVille! The new office can be labeled “post virtual”. Yes it supports virtual work and virtual organizations, but it provides both physical place and human community.

Welcome to the office of the future, except the future is now. The new way of functioning is certainly here, while the new form of office is just beginning to emerge. Next generation offices like E|SPACES in the Hill Center at Belle Meade provide a stark contrast to the office as a box and a glimpse of what is coming. When form and function merge, the outcome is a thing of beauty.

TAGS: OfficeOrganizationVirtual

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