A brilliant aspect of Queen's MBA at Smith School of Business is that we spend the first semester in a perfectly office-like setting with a specific team of 6 or 7 that has been built to ensure that our views do not match! Okay, to explain it in fairer terms, each team comprises candidates with complimentary strengths (assessed holistically by the school prior to the start of program), so as to create a perfect "brain and character" together. We are trained to learn to collaborate and appreciate priorities that may not make sense at first. While it is seen as a way to create effective teams in real workplace scenarios, I find that it has an even more profound effect shaping you as a person. Get out of this 6-month long exercise and you may be equipped to peacefully work with any colleague you face in the future.
My focus today, however, is on the workplace itself - The Team Room. Our mainstay on all days, it truly delegates our real home to some secondary place we go at the end of the day. That really spells out just how important offices can, and have, become in everyone's lives today. I recently shared two revealing info graphs on bringing Positivity at Work, on Blog of the Fly, fished out from the guys at CMD & Adecco USA. However, that sprung out a different question: much as we set up our mental framework and habits around our desks, why do these office spaces themselves have to be the way they are? There are many companies that have started to consider precisely that as an essential ingredient to their employee’s wellbeing and retention. Google is a good example. But before we go into that detail, which inevitably trickles onto the more fantastical, let us look at just how offices came to be the way they are today. The following history is taken from a very interesting article - 'Desk for Success' - published in the January 2nd edition of National Post, Canada. It was written by Maryam Siddiqui.
The history of the office has traditionally been derived by two factors – the demands of the employer and the wellbeing of employees. In the early days, with the first companies, the former often took precedence. The counting house of yore would typically have basic accountant/lawyer desk with space for his clerk. That, it seems, was the very first version of a formal workplace.
The Seaport’s most famous buildings are lined up along Schermerhorn Row. Designed by Peter Augustus Schermerhorn in 1812 for use as “counting houses”.
Image Source: https://nyhistorywalks.wordpress.com
That word ‘office’ itself replaced ‘counting house’ only in the 1830s. In Mr. Siddiqui’s chronological descriptions, it is clear that most structural changes came about only in the latter half of the 19th century, with the introduction of taller buildings in light of the development of iron frames in 1860, elevators in 1871, the arrival of Remington typewriters in 1875, Bell’s telephone patent of 1877 and the inclusion of filing cabinets over the next decade. These changes essentially allowed more people to work in closed spaces. That naturally necessitated effective monitoring – a problem solved 1898 at Bethlehem Iron Co. by the grandfather of office design – Frederick Taylor. He was tasked to increase workplace efficiency. His tough view – though understandable as a default presumption at that time – was that workers would only work under pressure from the boss. To allow such observation, the spaces where masses worked were made more open, and hence, visible to the main manager seated in a more private enclosure. Pressure, however works both ways.
In the early 20th century, a system of unions took prominence as a force to be taken seriously. No one likes strikes and demands by disgruntled employees! That proposition forced the US-based National Office Management Association to rethink workplaces a.k.a. the second factor of employee wellbeing. This, incidentally, was also a classic case of diversion tactics, but it resulted in workplaces that were better-lit, cleaner and – air conditioned. For, the idea of ACs had come about at a timely moment and was introduced in offices in 1928. Glass walls followed in 1933. By this time, of course, cities were sprawling, space was at a premium and office buildings were expanding in height instead. There is an interesting citation from Nikal Saval’s book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. It says, “The point was not to make office buildings per specification of a given company, but rather to build for an economy in which an organization could move in and out of space without difficulty. The space had to be eminently rentable.”
The 1950s and 60s saw work from a perceptual angle, or in other words, on the feel of an office space. It became brighter and cooler, thanks to fluorescent bulbs and suspended ceilings. But what truly marked this age was the introduction of the demon – computers. That further increased the amount of work that could be done in a given space. But while structural innovations had so far influenced workplace redesigning, the next trasnformation came about from a legal perspective when the US government tax break eased writing off depreciating assets in 1960s. This allowed employers to replace the four-walled offices carrying bulky furniture with more open and replaceable desk spaces consisting of cheap furniture that companies could now buy more often. Say hello to the cubicle!
2015 marked the 50th birthday of the Cubicle!
Image Source: http://www.worldnewsstand.net/cubicles-becoming-outdated-turn-50/
According to the Houston-based Internet Facility Management Association, the average office worker in 2010 had 75 square feet of space, down from 90 in 1994. This was despite radical suggestions as early as in 1964 by one Robert Propst from workplace design firm Herman Miller who believed that if you were filing things away, you probably didn’t need them. This, in fact, echoes in the reasons that often add to our stress at work or home where precautionary elements tend to get overdone and we always end up finding ourselves overstacked, yet underutilized. Unfortunately, while Propst’s initial standing-desk idea did not find takers, even his movable-wall concept eventually “stiffened.”
The good news is that workplace redesign has gained prominence in focus of many companies and researchers lately. In 2011, on its 175th work anniversary, Italy-based Marzotto Group launched an insightful Weave the Future project. It brought together 25 individuals from across the globe and diverse fields to study and propose ideas that could define industries over the following 25 years. I was part of the team tasked with ‘Creating Working Environments.’ After careful inspections of its factory-sites and ongoing trends, we couldn’t help but notice just how much of a work-environment would become largely independent of space, thanks to virtual connectivity. One question shouts out louder then: are we heading in the right direction in thinking about structural office changes instead of other factors that may change the very definition of an office or our way of working?
If one considers the gradual flow, few overarching themes of changes stand out, both technical and behavioural:
1. The application of constant Universal Connectivity or Internet of Things. This implies faster accessibility and processing of Big data in our environment, which leads to . . .
2. More seamless consumption of information through Augmented Reality & Screen Technology. This means easier understanding of the available data, allowing us to instantly consume required information for training, learning, or interactive purposes. That allows . . .
3. Freedom from geographical limitations. In other words, Work-from-Home and connect with colleagues virtually. It's fair to say that some work cannot be done from a distance, but most can. And we are bound to improve upon technology to facilitate this in more and more tasks. Yet, if we do cut out on physical presence, it will bring . . .
4. Changes in office- and engagement-etiquettes. That alone can bring major changes to many industries - from Fashion to Furniture! Speaking of which, what about . . .
5. Restructuring of transportation and travel industry. Think about what clogs the traffic during the so-called "peak hours" in every major city around the world. That takes us to structural insurgence on a very macro level, but also drives home the point of a domino-effect any one aspect of our lifestyle has on other industries today.
6. Loyalty to company, lifestyle satisfaction, reduced divorce rates and better child upbringing. We stay on macro but move to the soft segment of psychological and familial impact of that extra time we get with our families. Do the math. But why did I add the part about Child Upbringing? Though not relevant here, it is a vital issue and connected to parents to a detail I explain much more elaborately in the short story - Selfie Simulation.
7. Increase in disposable income? Finally, if the companies can cut costs on office space and related costs, while employees do so on commuting, food and wear, what is the immediate consequence? Over-consumerism of more hedonic products and services? Not exactly. This part is influenced by a very interesting 'evolution of money'. That is something I shall deal with separately in a future post.
For now, I leave you with that thought and from that landmark project, our interpretation of what future workplaces could mean. It is a mash-up of three independent videos, each of which I would encourage you to look through. They are quite amazing. Meanwhile, you can read the full script of Maryam Siddiqui’s post ‘Desk for Success’ for the National Post, available online.
Future Vision: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOU_t4bqEJg
VW Service of the Future Augmented Reality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqvskIQ9aSM
Future of Screen Technology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7_mOdi3O5E
Disclaimer: Contents on this page collate informational data and expert views of cultural, economic and scientific significance from different sources, credited accordingly in each post.
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© 2015 Malay Upadhyay