What’s an office for?

You build a mine where the ore is. And facilities right next to the mine, to extract the metals from it. And a factory next to it that turns the raw metal into parts and objects. And a train station or a port next to it, so you can move the objects to the stores you built where the people are. And you also build a town where all your employees will live.
That’s how it’s always been done.
You cannot work the land, without living on it and getting your boots muddy. If you are hoarding something valuable, you need to hire night-guards who will actually show up at work. I understand, there are many jobs that require a person to show up at a particular place at a particular time to get the job done. The actors have to actually show up at the theater for the show to go on.
But many of those same companies also have offices and headquarters. Not to mention that more and more companies are dealing with information, education, knowledge, news or entertainment. Why do they still require people to show up at the office?
When the economic times are tough, why do CEOs fire people?
Why don’t they close the offices instead?
And keep the people?
Is it because they hate to relinquish personal micromanaging control?
That’s what telecommuting and coworking are all about. Recognition that the concept of the “office” is something that belongs to the previous millennium. All the office-typical work can now be done online.
If you force people to come to the office every day, they will resent the lack of freedom. They will resent you for being overbearing and controlling. People who rub elbows with each other every day are bound to sometimes rub each other the wrong way, starting animosities, cliques and general sense of disgruntleness. The result can be this. And will be, more and more, as the new generations were not brought up to suffer indignities in silence.
There is a lot of complaining going around the business leaders’ circles about the Millennials being lazy or demanding. No, the kids see an antiquated system and are working to change it from within, demanding that you change the way you do business – it is you who ‘don’t get it’, the kids are fine.
If you close the office and keep the employees, you will get stronger loyalty and greater job satisfaction. The job will get done better. People will come up with creative ideas that can save your company.
Furthermore, you will be able to hire the best – the people who live elsewhere and have no intention to move for the job, people who are aware of their quality and cannot be bullied into uprooting their families just to work for you.
Even better, if your employees are all around the world, this means that they are walking billboards for your company. They go around certain circles wherever they are and answer the usual question “what do you do?” every day. If they are all at the HQ, you need to pay for PR. If they are everywhere, the PR is automatic and free.
But apparently, the CEOs are not even aware how outdated their thinking is. A recent survey prompted some of them to think, for the first time, about the possibilities. It will be too late by the time they moved from “hmmm, interesting idea” to “yes, we’ll do this right now”.
Kevin Gamble asks:

When working with organizations, I’ve heard it said more than once, “People are our most important resource,” and yet how many are downsizing? Do you hear them seriously considering the savings that could accrue from closing unneeded offices? I have yet to hear a single person mention that their organizations are considering closing offices in order to preserve staffing. I have heard a few mentions of consolidation of offices, but that’s different.
Even without an economic meltdown the closing of offices makes total sense. Given our current situation, closing offices is a no-brainer. Seriously, unless you are selling or producing a physical product what function does your office serve? Make a list– yes, I am challenging you to justify why you keep your offices while at the same time downsizing your work force. I’ll wait… go make that list. Now which of those functions could be satisfied in some less expensive, and perhaps better manner by a co-working facility, hot-desking, or virtual meeting space?

11 responses to “What’s an office for?

  1. This post reminds me that you are truly a great blogger – not a science blogger – a blogger, period. The whole post is great but these two paragraphs really resonate with me:

    Furthermore, you will be able to hire the best – the people who live elsewhere and have no intention to move for the job, people who are aware of their quality and cannot be bullied into uprooting their families just to work for you.

    Even better, if your employees are all around the world, this means that they are walking billboards for your company. They go around certain circles wherever they are and answer the usual question “what do you do?” every day. If they are all at the HQ, you need to pay for PR. If they are everywhere, the PR is automatic and free.

    Indeed, there are some jobs, some days, where people do need to come to the “office.” But there are many, many jobs where much or all of the work can be done at anywhere. Chaining people to a “workplace” is a ridiculous and, as you say, antiquated, idea.
    In the States, I was really hoping that the summer/fall spike in gasoline prices would force even the most stodgy to embrace telecommuting by their people.
    The truth is that many business “leaders” are not leaders at all. They are managers and often poor ones at that. Just pick up a copy of Fast Company and you’ll see how true leadership and embracing the virtual workspace is changing the face of business, increasing profits and productivity, cultivating employee loyalty, and, god forbid, increasing overall employee happiness. The flexibility of the virtual workplace is just one solution in solving geographical barriers to talent and creating an environment for better balance of work and family.

  2. I agree with everything you have written. It doesn’t makes sense for workers to commute two hours a day in this day of high speed internet, VPNs and VOIP.
    I created a web site for workers who are interested in working remotely. The web site provides listings for remote offices. The site http://www.remoteofficecenters.com is free for both posting information and searching for Remote Office Centers.
    Remote Office Centers lease individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from different companies in shared centers located around the city and suburbs.
    There was a time when workers had to work in a centralized location. Now, workers have the choice of home telecommuting, remote office centers, coworking facilities and virtual offices.

  3. as someone who works in an office, and would probably be completely incapable of focusing on work at home, I think that there is some merit to a company having or maintaining an office.
    not necessarily office hours, but an office nonetheless. for the sort of work that I do, working in concert with a large number of other people, it really does work best to have everyone (at least everyone on a particular project,) in (roughly) the same place.
    there are other groups at my company that are spread out all over the world, and those groups are made up of people who are good at managing and working within that sort of team, some of whom already work at home. the team that I am a part of seems to thrive on being able to walk around the corner and talk over an issue in a way that is not served well by teleconferencing. technically, there is no reason why all of us couldn’t be working at home and only contacting each other via some sort of teleconference, but as a group we seem to work well in relatively close proximity.
    curiously, both of my parents and my older brother have invested in having an office distant from their homes even though they are (or were) independently or self employed. there are many people who are able set aside space at home where they can get work done, and more power to them. there are others, like myself, (and apparently much of my family) who find that less conducive to getting work done.
    personally, I find it much easier to get in the mood to work when I’m surrounded by a lot of other people that I am working with. otherwise I tend to wander off…

  4. Thanks, Abel!
    Peter, some of those issues we addressed in previous posts (linked above), discussing the advantages of coworking over telecommuting-from-home for people who need other people in order to focus. Some get dressed (put makeup and whatnot) even when they work at home in order to mentally separate work from non-work in their lives.

  5. Alex Besogonov

    As an owner of a small software company, working at the office is much more productive, because direct face-to-face communication between people is so much better.
    Also, there are much less distractions in the office.

  6. Please read Marjorie Kelly’s Divine Right of Capital for much food for thought on this matter.

  7. I did and hope more people do.

  8. For the last 8 years I’ve telecommuted. The main office is 340km away from her and the number of times I’ve been there in the last 8 years you can count on both hands and have fingers to spare. I work from my home and I’m very productive (enough so that my boss has demanded/begged that if I ever decide to move on/retire I give him 6 months notice). If your job is in information and not materials handling then there are damn few reasons for you to actually show up in the office in person

  9. For a glimpse of what can be done even if your presence is required check out Ivan Anywhere http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJCSOsmgUZo

  10. I just found this excellent post (read the whole thing so this excerpt will start making sense):
    “The great dream of teleworking hasnít come true. We are not seeing companies rush to let their staff work from home, even though internet access and a phone is pretty much all that a lot of people need to do their job. I think the reason we havenít seen a sea change in the way that we work is not because of the technology – I work from home most of the time, and even the basic tech I have on my Mac is enough for me to do my job perfectly well – It is because no one trusts the teleworker.
    Three of the four proxies for productivity are removed in the case of the teleworker. The whole point of working from home is that you are not at your desk in the office, are not in meetings, and are not travelling. That leaves just email as a proxy, but for most managers thatís just not enough. They have never really sat down and thought about what their team actually does on a day to day basis, never considered how that might be measured, and what those measurements might mean (if anything). Instead, the forcible removal of three proxies simply leaves an uncomfortable hole in their subconscious reckoning of how hard someone is working, which allows in the fear that they are in fact not working at all, which then makes them reluctant to allow anyone that opportunity. ”

  11. The Telecommuting Dream is going to be a reality very soon, with petrol prices sky-rocketing. The awareness to reduce the “carbon foot print” also making everyone think twice. Let’s wait for a more greener world altogether.