People have been talking about the demise of the office for years now. Since telecommuting became an everyday phenomenon, opinion-makers have been queuing up to tell us how the traditional workplace is on the verge of extinction.
Just about every article I read extolling the virtues of remote working loves to diminish the relevance of the office as an important contributor to the operations of a successful business. Personally, I have yet to find an acceptable substitution for face-to-face communication. It is just not possible for clear, consistent and unmistakeable communication to occur over email, text, phone or Skype. You simply lose too much of the personal interaction: gone is the ability to be able to read someone’s body language, grab a pen and paper to draw a diagram, point to an example, or empathise sincerely with a colleague. And how much more difficult is it to assist a customer or collaborator who is struggling with complex concepts when you’re not even in the same room?
None of this is to say that alternate forms of communication aren’t acceptable – for 60 to 80 per cent of the time they may well suffice – but the real success for a business is more likely to be born in the moments where staff can share ideas and creativity personally.
Given my issues with the whole “death of the office” narrative, I have no problem with discussions about improving the productivity of a business by improving its environment. When you consider the effects of lighting, colour, furniture and ergonomics, office layout and composition, flexible working environments, Feng Shui, technology and green plants, there’s a lot to be said for better surroundings providing better results.
However, I do get increasingly agitated when I read articles that discuss each of these elements in complete isolation from the structures that house the workplace in the first instance – commercial office buildings. After all, functional design and location fundamentally affect all of the issues pertaining to successful operation. Indeed poor office location can make optimal outcomes more difficult to achieve, or even downright impossible.
Think of it this way: if your work is the play, your office space is the stage: a good stage allows for the best presentation of the production. But to extend the metaphor, your office building is the theatre. Just as an auditorium with poor seating, stuffy atmosphere, rundown facilities and inadequate transport links will make it difficult to attract a quality cast and, furthermore, an audience, a shoddy office will detract from whatever you produce.
Once you consider the effect the office building and its location has on the productivity of its occupants, you can expand the range of improvements to maximise your business. This might include indoor air quality, acoustic comfort, thermal comfort, internal staircases (for fitness activities), active transport enablers (access to transport and cycling facilities), natural lighting and visual comfort (including access to views), proximity to amenities (both daytime and night time entertainment) and the ability for a building to support current and future technology requirements and digital innovations.
All of these issues are dependent on the choice of office building within which a workplace is located – and we haven’t even discussed the strategic business issues associated with a building’s reflection of a business’s brand, or the effect location has on supply chain logistics, staff attraction or innovation (agglomeration or clustering effects).
The fact that we can legitimately discuss the importance and impact of a workplace without considering the effect of the host building on the business outcomes such as staff attraction and retention, brand reputation; and sales and profitability, would appear nonsensical. And yet still these conversations continue.
At times I feel the only course of action remaining to me is the one suggested by Howard Beale in the movie Network: to stick my head out the window and shout, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” Unfortunately, I am not very confident that will fix the underlying problem.
Ultimately new office designs can be interesting, cool and sexy. The problem with the buildings that house them is that in most cases you’re stuck with what’s available. The buildings are just… there. Take them or leave them. To put a real jolt back into the office, you must return to the drawing board and design a building that ticks all the boxes before you even lay the foundations.