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The History of the Office Provides Clues to the Future of Work

December 03, 2012

Vinnie Mirchandani, of Deal Architect fame, has some great thoughts on the future of the office. Ricky Gervais fans might want to look away but, then again, maybe not ...

Through the last couple of decades, the TV show “The Office” (the US and the predecessor British show) has been surreal. You see cubicles, water coolers and fax machines and you wonder which real-life office remains so frozen in time. The reality, of course, is the workplace – where, when, how we work – has seen dramatic shifts. We outline below 10 ways the “office” has morphed.

a) The time elastic office

Many fast food restaurants, during busy lunch or dinner hours,  move a couple of employees out to the drive-through lanes to take orders and process payments. The window merely serves the food. This speeds up the lane considerably. When the busy time ends, the process collapses and the window goes back to doing all three tasks. Workflow engines increasingly allow for role and time based flexibility within a process allowing for such “time shifting” for many other industries.

b) The place elastic office

Go into an Apple store and you may surprised there are no POS terminals or printers. Associates walk around and assist customers anywhere in the store and process transactions on their iPods. Printers are discreetly tucked under tabletops. The Delta Red Coat with his/her distinctive jacket used to attract to their station passengers with their unique needs. Now, armed with a Motorola handheld they can walk to gates where assistance is needed, rather than have  passengers walk for miles. And they can process special service requests (wheel chairs, special meal, etc) on their handheld not just basic requests. Over and over we are seeing examples of “offices” which expand and contract in response to customer needs.

c) The office of “Things”

Walk into a Zappos warehouse, and you see R2D2 sized Kiva robots zipping around. Instead of having people walking around and looking for ordered items, the robots do the running around and bring the items to the workers, who check the orders and seal them in shipping boxes. The Amazon Mechanical Turk is based on the same principle that for some tasks, human beings can do a better job than computers or robots. So they do better at identifying objects in a photo or video, performing data de-duplication, transcribing audio recordings or researching data details. The Mechanical Turk marketplace allows for Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) to be programmed into automated workflows and for thousands of workers around the world to bid for those HITs. The Hospira Infusion Pump was developed to provide controls – right medication in right dosage to right patient by the right care giver by scanning and triangulating patient, drug and employee codes. But once it starts pumping the dosage, it allows the caregiver to move around the patient’s room (or even outside) and has controls and alarms to alert the human if things go wrong.

d) The home as office

According to the US Census Bureau, home-based work in computer, engineering, and science occupations increased by 69 percent between 2000 and 2010. It has also allowed for “virtualized” inbound and outbound call centers that can leverage “stay at home” moms and dads. And for HITs above, the home office is often the delivery location. Starbucks used to position itself as the “third place” behind the home and workplace. But it and other cafes have become the de facto office for many – to the point where some have started sealing their power outlets to discourage “long term” patrons. 

e) The truck as office

Few people realize that UPS delivery personnel have been using their mobile DIADs for over 20 years now. Data collected from those DIADs has allowed the mobile office – their truck - to become increasingly sophisticated . UPS has mined mountains of route data to minimize left turns and to schedule “on the fly” pickups. And mobile offices have moved beyond logistics. Many repair and other services go to the customer rather than the other way round. Austin, TX has become the mobile food capital of the world. Many of the vendors use Twitter to inform their fans of daily locations. Most also have websites with their mobile numbers listed.

f) The commute as office

An interesting study from the NYURudinCenter for Transportation documents the rapid growth of the “super-commuter” who is defined as “a person who works in the central county of a given metropolitan area, but lives beyond the boundaries of that metropolitan area, commuting long distance by air, rail, car, bus, or a combination of modes.” In the US, this has led to labor corridors in the NE and others stretching from Chicago to Detroit, Los Angeles to San Francisco and Dallas to Houston where workers have a second “home” during the week. The outsourcing industry has long been moving to a week of 4 day at client site/1 day at home office model.  

g) The airport hotel as office

Airport hotels like the Chicago O’Hare Hilton used to be dreary places for travelers who missed a connection or had a flight canceled. Now they are springing up all over the world and are downright stylish like the Milan Sheraton and the Berlin Steinberger. They are becoming the meeting/event destination of many a business  seeking to bring together distributed workforces who largely interact via telepresence. They are often the most convenient place for many to convene.

h) The Green office

Even with home and mobile offices growing, the office building of old is not dying. It is, however, being made more sustainable. Walk into the new CityCenter complex in Las Vegas, and you see 6 of the buildings are LEED Gold certified with thoughtful energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling and other “green” features designed from the ground up.  While their resource savings are significant, so is the labor impact from a reduction in office building-related illnesses.  Increasing daylight levels have shown overall productivity growth by 13 percent and improved mental function and memory recall by 10 to 25 percent. Workplaces with good air quality and ventilation also show other productivity increases.

i) The Toystore as office

An exciting new development in HR circles is the gamification of recruiting, training, and other employee related processes. That game and fun metaphor is being carried over into physical spaces. Atlanta based Kids II, which makes Baby Einstein, offers an alternative to elevators. You can take a spiraling slide and get downstairs even quicker. The new Plantronics headquarters does away with conference rooms. Instead it has brightly colored ergonomic chairs and plush couches made from sustainable materials.

j) The great outdoors as office

Jonathan Olivares, a respected furniture designer, is increasingly focused on concepts for use in outdoor settings.  His philosophy: working indoors goes back to the paperwork explosion from 1850 to 1960. Paper was not conducive to outdoor working.  It also necessitated heavy metal filing cabinets which could not be moved outside. Now, with a laptop or tablet, you can do serious work outside, if you have the right space and furniture. That thinking is poised to revolutionize building and workflow design in the next few years.

The “Office” has gone through and continues to see many mutations. While the examples above identify specific industries and job descriptions, they are being adapted and adopted across industries. Together, they are reshaping the future of work everywhere.

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