Hype about teleworking and hotdesking abounds. But just how much will office life change for most of us before the millennium?
A few years ago weather forecasters, trying to sell their skills more widely, hit on a bright idea. They would attach a probability rating to their predictions. There were lots of businesses, like supermarkets, which wanted really accurate information about short-and medium-term weather patterns. A probability rating, indicating the chances of the forecast being correct (meteorology, by its nature, cannot be an exact science) would give them a sense of comfort worth paying a premium for. A 90% chance of a week's hot weather, for instance, might encourage store managers to stock up on strawberries and cream whereas a 50:50 rating would make them more cautious.
Maybe other sorts of forecasters and futurologists, particularly those who predict the way business is heading, ought to be encouraged to adopt the same system. Some predictions, like those which said the microchip was going to revolutionise the way in which we work, have proved to be spot-on. Others, however, have been spectacularly wide of the mark. Many of those concerning the so-called office of the future fall into that category. The future to which the term referred has been coming for so long that the phrase itself has become something of a joke, as have quite a number of the more detailed predictions attached to it.
One of the most manifestly off-beam was the forecast, widely touted in the early 1990s, that for a significant chunk of the working population, the traditional office would soon become a thing of the past. Wage slaves would become teleworkers, beavering away at home, attached to their offices by an electronic umbilical cord (telephone and personal computer) but otherwise free to organise and carry out their work as they chose. The conventional wisdom was that, by mid-decade, there would be more than two-and-a-half million of such home workers, able through the wonders of modern technology, to do their work absolutely anywhere - be they based in Surbiton or the Isle of Skye.
As of 1996, the most reliable estimate of the actual number of people operating in such working conditions in the UK was around 125,000, just 5% of the total expected. Other countries made similar mistakes. The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs, for instance, guessed there might be be-tween 600,000 and 1.8 million teleworkers in the Netherlands by mid-decade (not bad for a country of only 15 million people), but by last year the Dutch could find only 55,000 people fitting the description.
Colin Jackson, managing director of the business consultancy Organisation and Technology Research (OTR), who warned people in the early 1990s that they were grossly overestimating the demand for teleworking, says we should not be surprised by how wrong everyone got it (one should, however, note that he himself managed to overestimate the market by a factor of 10). Jackson says three factors had to stack up if teleworking was to take off as predicted: first, the jobs had to be suitable for teleworking; second, individuals had to be suited to teleworking; and third, companies had to have staff who were capable of managing teleworkers. In retrospect, each criterion on its own was going to be pretty hard to meet - probably the only jobs really suitable for teleworking were small-scale occupations like journalism and writing computer software, and almost nobody had experience of managing such people at a distance - and the chances of lining up all three were, it can now be seen, vanishingly small.
'It was a bit like the chances of finding a one-legged accordion player who was a fighter pilot in the second world war,' says Jackson.
The teleworking bungle is worth recalling because a new set of predictions is now being made about offices of the future. Jackson is one of those making them and is confident that this set of predictions, or at least his own bit of them, will be vindicated. Significantly, OTR's new predictions are comparatively modest and tentative and are expressed only as trends rather than in absolute numbers. The key prediction is that something called the virtual office is about to become part of our lives.
The virtual office isn't some new kind of futuristic office that everyone needs to wear a virtual reality helmet and sensor glove to enter, although BT research scientists have actually been working on just such an idea for several years now. It is something much simpler and more basic than that; in fact, it is already with us. Like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain who didn't know he was speaking prose until somebody brought it to his attention, many of us are already working in a virtual office though we may not be aware of it. The grand-sounding term simply denotes an ordinary office complemented by fairly everyday equipment like mobile phones and laptop computers which mean that office workers don't need to be in the office itself to get on with their job.
'The virtual office is for people who normally work in an office but are popping in and out or are going somewhere else in the organisation,' says Jackson. 'There are lots of people who do that. What people need in terms of support to do it and what suppliers intend to produce happen to line up, which is why it is going to grow. Demand and supply line up for the virtual office whereas demand and supply didn't line up for teleworking.'
Jackson thinks the simplest indication that the virtual office is going to catch on is the spectacular growth in digital mobile phones. The number of subscribers in western Europe - less than eight million at the end of 1995 - is growing at an enormous rate and is expected, on OTR's forecasts, to reach more than 40 million by 2000. Most mobiles are used at the moment only for normal telephone communication but the most sophisticated of them can already be used for things like fax, data and e-mail.
Add in laptop computers, mobile faxes and equipment that will allow mobile users to dial into an organisation's database and the virtual office set-up will enable us to do pretty well everything we did before in the office from any location.
There are undoubtedly management difficulties involved in implementing a full-blown virtual office (people have to be persuaded to be much less reliant on paper-based ways of working, for instance), but OTR thinks that business pressures will push us in this direction. Companies, it says, are increasingly understanding that mobile communications can convert previously unproductive time to productive time, and employees, many of them fearful for their jobs, having seen friends and colleagues lose theirs as companies downsize, are obliged to consider anything, including technology, which will make them more productive and therefore more attractive to their employer. 'The virtual office,' says OTR in downbeat tones (a reaction, surely, to all the hype that has surrounded previous predictions about the radically different office of the future), 'is a growing market'.
Jackson acknowledges that other, more ground-breaking forms of office re-organisation, such as the widely publicised hot-desking approach and the flexible office, also have a role to play, but suggests that really they are of limited applicability.
So the gospel according to OTR would appear to be one of evolution not revolution. Perhaps it is a case of 'Slowly, slowly, catchee market'.
Jackson and OTR think the office of the future is already with us, that we just need to recognise it. Architect Francis Duffy thinks we are actually caught, imprisoned almost, in the office of the far distant past and that, unless we do something about it, we will have major problems on our hands.
In the last years of the 20th century, says Duffy, a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, we are living through a decade when organisational theory about companies has never been so rich and inventive, when organisational change has never been so radical and fast, yet the physical environment in which we play all this out is one designed to fit the now antiquated ideology of Frederick Taylor, the late-19th century pioneer of work study and scientific management. Taylor thought about people as units of production who could and should be organised for maximum efficiency by being slotted into a power structure; the modern office was Taylorism made bricks and mortar.
The trouble is, says Duffy, that Taylor's ideas, which may have changed the face of the workplace 100 years ago, still dominate office design to this day. In other words, dynamism in organisational thinking is being thwarted by a conservatism in thinking about the physical office. 'That's damaging because they're trying to put new wine into old bottles. It's dangerous. Buildings are lethal objects.
They can stop organisational growth.'
Properly used, Duffy thinks, design should act as a catalyst, enabling and speeding change. 'If you think about the tools that are to hand for management then, apart from finance, there's human resources, there's information technology, which is very powerful, and there's space, buildings.
These are three great resources which can be used well or badly.'
Part of the reason why offices are used badly or not used at all in helping to change and improve the organisation is that the user has no say in what happens to offices. He or she simply gets what is on offer. 'The voice of the user got cut out a long time ago,' explains Duffy, 'because of the function of the developer in office building. Exchange value took over from use value.' In other words, buildings simply became objects in the market place and people became obsessed with their commercial value rather than think about what they actually did. In parallel with this, architects were disempowered. They saw their worth being measured simply by how cheaply they could accomplish the task at hand. But investment in buildings and offices doesn't have to be seen as a cost. It can be looked at as an investment, one which can actually increase revenue. 'There's another world,' says Duffy, 'another dimension in which you say: "My cleverness, my intelligence can actually create value for you and make your organisation more effective".'
Fundamentally, he believes, the crisis of office design has been caused by the fact that we have got two different worlds which are failing to communicate. 'The world of management is very volatile, it has very short-time horizons. Buildings, by contrast, are very stiff. It takes them a long time to be procured. Getting the two time scales aligned is terribly important.'
Can we break the mould? Can we correct the mismatch between organisational change and physical change? Is it possible to stop office buildings inhibiting change and launch them into facilitating it? Duffy thinks it is, but certainly doesn't underestimate the effort and energy which it will require. 'Look about you,' he wrote when he reviewed the classic management text, Re-engineering the Corporation, in 1993. 'Add up the conservation that is embedded in every piece of conventional office furniture, in every developer's rent slab, in every text-book of space-planning and engineering practice and you know at once how immense is the task of escaping from the suffocating success of the Taylor-ist past, how very hard it is to invent a simpler, more rational way of doing things based on an imaginative acceptance of the enormous innovative potential of distributed information technology.'
Breaking the mould isn't impossible. There was a burst of energy in London during the early 1980s when the City, realising that it wasn't ready physically for Big Bang, set about with a will putting up buildings which were capable of coping with organisations which had had radically to remodel themselves for life after deregulation.
However, that was really a catching-up exercise and was eye-catching chiefly because it hadn't happened in quite that way before (or, to be fair, since).
The trouble, people like Duffy would say, is that if the burst of energy isn't sustained, then the momentum just gets lost and we are pulled back into old ways of thinking, and old, unimaginative ways of building.
One way of breaking out of the vicious circle is for designers to think about organisational structure, work processes and physical consequences in a systemic way. Duffy's own contribution, apart from analysing what has gone wrong, is to think through the new patterns of work and what those imply for new kinds of office arrangement. That way of thinking is leading him to propose a model in which there are four major organisational types which he calls respectively the hive, the den, the cell and the club (see box above). The hive is closest to the traditional nine-to-five office. People work as individuals but have little autonomy. The den is associated with group process work. People interact quite a bit but still don't have much autonomy. Design and insurance processing work might be done in a den-like office. The cell is a place for individual, concentrated work, while the club office organisation is for knowledge work. People tend to work in the club intermittently. Individuals and teams both occupy space as they need it and relinquish it when they've finished. Duffy's belief is that over the next 10 years there will be a move towards a more club-like pattern, but, he says, in reality most larger organisations are going to consist of a mix of the four organisational types. 'So rather than a straight shift towards the club, it'll be a shift in the relative proportions of each model,' he explains.
Duffy wouldn't presume to think that his own vision is the last word, but if it gets us thinking in a more flexible way about changing organisations and the way offices play a role in that change, he will be a happy man. But what about us? Will we be happy? There is a school of thought that says it is not the buildings or offices which are too rigid and conservative to be enablers of change, but us too. We like the comfort of what we know.
We want our cluttered desks, our paper-based systems, our private spaces.
And we prize them even more when we are in the midst of the kind of organisational change that is in vogue at the moment, precisely because they seem to represent stability.
Donald Skilling, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Cranfield University, certainly recognises this tendency to revert to what one knows, but says it needn't and shouldn't be like that. The trick is to get people involved in the change. 'A lot of it has to do with how much people are brought into the process of influencing the office design. It's a chestnut we deal with in our business all the time. If you dump something on people and say, "Live with it!", I don't care if it's a building, a programme, a service, people are going to have some natural resistance.'
THE PAPERLESS OFFICE
What, technology instead of paper? Well, not quite
Long, long ago, back in the early 1980s,the prevailing wisdom was that rapidly developing technology would soon result in the paperless office. But, as almost anyone who works in any office knows, the computer has failed to deliver this paper-free paradise. Currently:
- The European document market is worth Ecu 20 billion (£16 billion) a year or just over £500 a second. With this money,this year, you could renationalise British Airways, British Aerospace and Railtrack.
- European companies create some five billion documents a day. Placed one on top of each other, they would form a stack 1,200 times the height of Sir Norman Foster's proposed millennium tower.
- 95% of information is still kept on paper. 1997's entire production of paper-based information,
- if the sheets were laid end to end, would stretch from the earth to the sun and back twice.
- European paper-related tasks (reading, printing, etc) consume 60% of office time. If, by eliminating paper, a quarter of this time could be saved and used productively, the extra tax revenue created would be equivalent to around 20 times the estimated revenue from London Underground's mooted sale (or about twice the system's estimated real value).
Is your ideal environment a hive, cell, den or club?
The key to office design, according to architect Francis Duffy, is understanding the relative importance of interaction and autonomy in job functions. Duffy, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and head of office design consultancy DEGW, believes office design should be divided into four models:
The 'hive'(low autonomy/ low interaction) works best for repetitive jobs which require little consultation with fellow workers, such as data entry or call-centres. Hives are open-plan with standard workstations.
The 'cell'(high autonomy/ low interaction) is for those who have limited need to talk to colleagues and mostly operate independently, such as lawyers.
A cell is usually heavily partitioned and may often be a separate office.
The 'den'(low autonomy/ high interaction) is for jobs where decision-making often involves group activity and draw on a range of skills. Creative activities such as magazine production are suited to dens which are typically open-plan rooms separate from other groups.
The 'club'(high autonomy/ high interaction) is suited to jobs such as management consultancy which involve a lot of communication with colleagues and considerable independence. Clubs can incorporate desk-sharing and many modern elements of office design, such as 'living rooms' with sofas and mobile tables.