Is the office dead or merely in a state of flux?

A recent debate questioned whether the world of work has changed for ever, making the office obsolete.

Is the office dead? Thanks to modern technology is there any need to spend hours commuting into a building where you get less done than you do in your own home?

More and more companies are scaling back their real estate to cater for a growing number of homeworkers and only using office space for meetings and brainstorming sessions. Moreover, research seems to show that homeworkers are more productive than their office-based counterparts, despite the stereotypes that they are just hanging around in their pjs watching daytime tv.

Maybe, perhaps, this over-productivity is in part the result of the people who tend to want homeworking. Many of these are parents or carers who often need to make homeworking work for them so are prepared to put in whatever extra is needed to show willing or because they are worried it could be taken away from them. BT says overwork is one of the main concerns it has with homeworkers and it suggests that managers be alert to this tendency.

A lot of the issues around homeworking centre on the relationship between different members of staff and the expectations from management. If there is a shift to homeworking, then managers have to manage differently. Given they cannot see that people are actually working, they have to base their management on what is actually delivered. In the long turn, this could in fact improve performance as people being in the office is not the same as them actually doing any constructive work.

Managers also have to trust their staff to get on and do what they employed them to do. It's not always happening, though. At a recent roundtable event organised by The Guardian and Powwownow, a provider of free conference calling services, David D’Souza, managing director of Oddbody Consulting, expressed a concern that technology which has been so important in enabling remote working could allow employers to track their staff, giving a message of lack of trust which runs counter to more progressive ways of management. How motivating is working for an employer who wants you to account for your every move and for every time you step away from the computer?

Victoria Mileham, co-founder of Time etc, which offers assistants to entrepreneurs by the hour, agreed, saying that clients had a tendency to be suspicious about how long work was taking if they could not see people doing it. That runs against the whole management by output style which proponents of homeworking have been promoting.

In contact

Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk, which advises a large range of employers who are moving to more agile ways of working, expressed concern that such moves would be counterproductive.  “People make assumptions about traditional ways of working and they worry – but you should be as contactable as before, if not more so,” he said. Modern technology means workers are just an email, a mobile call or an instant message away. There are so many ways to be in touch these days that most workers find it hard to switch off at all.

There is a tendency, though, to not include people who are not in front of you in wider strategic conversations or to assume that because they are not in the office they are uncontactable. Again, this is all about how remote working is managed and there are skills that need to be developed to do it effectively. Laurie Willis, director of PWM Training, said remote working “has to involve good management and has to envelop trust over the whole organisation. It is now a driver in being successful.” Robert Gorby, marketing director of Powwownow, said video-calling was a key to the success of this approach. Video-calling has the advantage of face to face contact, albeit remote. He added: “You gain trust by giving people the accountability and responsibility to get on with their job however they want.”

It is not just about managers, though. Many managers send their staff off to work remotely with very little preparation. Remote workers, for instance, often complain of lack of technical support. Organisations such as Plantronics have also been doing research into how remote staff can be more effective on conference calls. Such research should surely be encouraged.

Remote working is not for everyone, though, even if remote workers are working from hubs or communal spaces such as cafes or hotels. Some people prefer the office to working remotely and find it hard to motivate themselves as well when they are not with other colleagues. Some jobs cannot be done remotely.

Channel 4’s head of corporate services, Julie Kortens, said younger workers might learn about the ropes of their job better in a communal environment. “You need guidance as you’re developing,” she said, adding it was important for young people to have a sense of belonging, and that they needed to know the rules and boundaries between work and play before taking advantage of remote working. Others combine the benefits of both office and home by splitting the week and working a few days from home and the rest of the days in the office.

Perhaps the office is not dying then, but the culture of presenteeism is as managers adapt to the fact that workers work better when they are not chained to the desk.





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