Who needs an office?

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Could the day come where we say “goodbye” to the office?

The trend towards a world without cubicles is real … the technology is certainly available to keep folks connected to their business applications, email, and co-workers remotely.  In Canada in particular, we are inching toward a knowledge-based economy, and forward thinking employers are embracing the idea that their people can operate effectively without being in an office.   Consider the following from Seth Godin:

 Factories used to be arranged in a straight line. That’s because there was one steam engine, and it turned a shaft. All the machines were set up along the shaft, with a belt giving each of them power. The office needed to be right next to this building, so management could monitor what was going on.

150 years later, why go to work in an office/plant/factory?

1. That’s where the machines are
2. That’s where the items I need to work on are
3. The boss needs to keep tabs on my productivity
4. There are important meetings to go to
5. It’s a source of energy
6. The people I collaborate with all day are there
7. I need someplace to go

But…

1. If you have a laptop, you probably have the machine already, in your house.
2. If you do work with a keyboard and a mouse, the items you need to work on are on your laptop, not in the office.
3. The boss can easily keep tabs on productivity digitally
4. How many meetings are important? If you didn’t go, what would happen?
5. You can get energy from people other than those in the same company.
6. Of the 100 people in your office, how many do you collaborate with daily?
7. So go someplace. But it doesn’t have to be to your office.

… The gain in speed, productivity and happiness is massive. What’s missing is #7… someplace to go.  Once someone figures that part out, the office is dead.  More

I wonder, even if the prediction is true and we watch the demise of the traditional office … are we going to be better off?  I’m not so sure.

When I’m away or working from home and a crisis erupts, or if I call into a sales meeting while the rest of the team is gathered in our boardroom … I often feel left out or somewhat powerless.  I’m a firm believer in the power and efficiency of face to face interaction.  What is more, Jason and I are deeply committed to the development of our company’s culture; which is the cornerstone of our sucess.  Our culture, the dynamic among our people, that is what defines us, it’s what preserves our core values as we grow, and it keeps us inspired and nimble.  Without an office for people to spend their days together, that culture would be almost impossible to develop or maintain.

Consider something else about the value of an office … When I get up from my desk to go grab a coffee, I can have 3 conversations with people on the team, giving me a barometer reading for how things are going for ITW.  That exercise rarely takes longer than 5 minutes.  If our team is working remotely, 3 conversations with my team are going to take 15 minutes or more.  The immediate access to people, their mood, and their productivity is essential to us.

Lastly, consider a very basic principle about human nature; out of sight … out of mind.  As a leader and manager, the necessity to spot trouble quickly is paramount.  When you lack genuine contact with people, ugly trends can be mighty hard to spot before their impact becomes significant.

While there is no doubt the way we operate in business is changing in profound ways …  I’m reserving any optimism about the idea that I will one day get alienated from the constant contact I enjoy with my team.

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