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Is Dilbert dead?

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If work is what you do and no longer where you go, is there still a reason for the office to exist?

It is no longer unusual to see someone sitting in the corner at your favorite coffee shop, with a laptop, alone or in a small group and you can clearly tell that they are in the middle of a work day. We know this to be the “third place”. The “first” is the regular office, the “second” appeared when we began working from home. And the “third place” showed up with ubiquitous mobility.

The third place, which is really anyplace, was made possible when work stopped being a place and became something you did. In many industries, the relevancy of the regular office is now being questioned. If most of your work day is comprised of what you do on your computer or your phone, and since these can be done anywhere with a connection, one might ask whether there is any reason for the office to exist? Or is there?

By the year 2025 people will most probably view our office buildings in the same way we perceive the factories of the 1800’s.

According to a UN report, the world’s population is increasingly urban and by 2050 about 2.5 Billion people are expected to move to the cities. There is no question what this will do to the infrastructure in and around cities and we can already see more and more of the world cities limit the entry of private vehicles and replace them with alternative arrangements for mobility or car sharing solutions. The latter is but one example of an emerging trend of infrastructure sharing in cities. Gilles Vesco, the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon France, is a visionary in this field:

“Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility. Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.

We’ll get back to office sharing in a minute.

If you take the time to notice, you’ll see offices are already half empty.

I tried this experiment with a leadership team in a large financial institution when I challenged them to count how many desks are empty in a given day and suggested they will discover the number is approximately 50%. And so it was.

It is not surprising if you think about the logic behind the move from offices with doors to open space cubics was the need to encourage collaboration and conversations as opposed to individual concentration behind closed doors. The idea of a desk for each employee dates back to the 1970’s where technology was large and expensive and work required that we do it at the office, where our paperwork, our terminal and our desk phone resided.

Today’s office desks are 50% empty because many companies actually expect their employees to be out there in the field with customers or collaborate in teams. And yet our office space is mostly designed around desks and in many companies conference rooms are the most difficult space to reserve…

As technology and work evolved, the mobile workforce no longer needs an office as we once defined it. In BT’s white paper covering five key trends that will shape the future of the workplace this new no-office workplace is called the Death of Dilbert, after the well known office cartoon. Today, we are no longer bound to a certain space, use little paperwork if any, but still sit in traffic on the way to our office.

Why is that? Why do we drive into the office?

There are still a few very good reasons for the office to exist. We still want to and need to socialize, meet people, about work and for recreation. In his HBR article, The New Science of Building Great Teams, Alex Pentland shares the results of an experiment where employees of a call center team were given their breaks together, as opposed to the more common practice of taking breaks at separate times. This change enabled the employees social time with their peers, which resulted in a productivity increase the organization estimated at 15M$. And yet, our work environment is still structured to give each one of us a desk, while collaboration spaces and areas conducive to simply socializing are usually a limited resource.

Organizations thinking ahead will re-evaluate office space from the point of view of people and not desks and re-define the office as a place people collect to meet, collaborate, create, innovate. In a recent post we discussed finding without looking and the important role workspace has in generating serendipitous meetings which will allow people to encounter knowledge, leading both them and the organization to new places of value, performance, innovation and engagement. Unstructured meeting space, and according to Pentland’s article above even extra-large lunch tables, where employees can meet and converse with others they do not know, those are the answer to the value of the office in today’s world of work.

And what about the Portfolio Career workers, the freelancers, entrepreneurs, self- employed? Where do they work?

For many, the obvious answer is the kitchen table or the neighborhood coffee place. But the need for an office did not disappear for these new types of workers, it is simply getting redefined as a flexible access to workspace. Flexible per schedule and need for anyone who needs to, or wants to, arrive at a place to meet people, collaborate and essentially form a new type of community workspace.

The term Coworking is a relatively new term created to define a shared workspace.

The difference between coworking spaces and the office we know is that the workers in the coworking space are not all employed by, or work for the same employer. These types of shared office spaces first appeared in 2005 in San Francisco, when three technology workers opened their loft during the day for anyone who wanted to work out of it. Since then, the amount of space in coworking offices doubled every year as virtual workers chose them to the relative isolation and lack of structure in home offices or public places.

For some, coworking offices are only a desk, in a convenient location, a flexible replacement for renting office space or conference rooms. But for many others, this is a much broader difference to the way we work, the “why” we would bother with an office.

There are four main reasons for working in coworking spaces:

Flexibility – One of the central changes to work is the ability to work from anywhere. So if work is what you do, not where you go, there really is no reason for it to include driving to an office on a given schedule. Coworking spaces are often open 24*7 and enable flexibility for those wanting to match their hours to personal preferences or needs of clients and partners on other time zones. They also provide flexibility for those who need to expand and contract their work space quickly with the changing environment.

Community – More and more coworking spaces are growing around a theme of community. The shift of work from “place” to “every place” brought flexibility, but also a sense of isolation. Coworking spaces enable the virtual worker the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they have the flexibility to choose who to work for and when, and on the other hand they are surrounded by like-minded people.

Serendipity – Pulling together this community of freelance workers into a physical location creates more than a group of people working side by side; it creates community and synergy and opens the way to serendipity. The idea is that working in a space with other people enables free movement of ideas and talent and skills between people who do not have an employer in common. A coworking space is likely to have entrepreneurs, software professionals, designers and marketing experts. Even if each one of these groups works separately, the range of possibilities expands for all of them as meetings and conversations extend knowledge and collaboration. Working alongside individuals and teams exposes us to new ideas, new modes of operation, opens possibilities, connections and perspectives on our own work. This could come in the form of brainstorming over coffee or even partnership with new talent for a project, which demands more than we can create ourselves.

Infrastructure – an important element of coworking spaces is the ability to access infrastructure we cannot afford on our own. This could start with access to conference rooms for more important meetings with customers or investors and extend to video conferencing and telepresence facilities for global meetings. And for our own productivity, these shared work spaces offer a large variety of work areas including quiet areas, private spaces, open spaces for collaboration as well as “softer” work spaces for relaxed work.

Tomorrow’s work environment is a combination of a redesigned new physical layout with the separation from the notion of a space belonging to an individual within a company. The good news for organizations is the potential cost saving in real estate and the adaptation of office space to the real type of work happening in the building. For employees and workers, this is about flexing time and place and creating community work solutions for those who are not full time salaried employees. The day is probably near where even large corporations will see the value that grows from having their employees participate in coworking spaces, allowing them to work from anywhere and interact with a broader peer group.

Many years ago in a survey we discovered people wanted an office mostly to put up the family photo. Today, we carry those around with us on our various screens. I don’t have a physical office for over a decade, and I can’t wait for what the future will bring in this space.