A Revolutionary Future: Is the Office Necessary?


Oooh! Technology! All images from Mad Men

Lane Wallace writes in the Atlantic "there's just no substitute for face to face contact with people. No matter how much new technology we develop."

She gives reasons like:

"1. Email/text/phone conversations do not convey anywhere near as much information as an in-person meeting....
2. Remote communication doesn't nurture the same level and quality of "hey, what do you think about this idea" casual, quick collaboration that physical proximity allows.
3. It's tough to get high-quality discussions with time delays and uncertainty about who is talking, when. And ... raise your hand if you've never done other tasks during a group teleconference.

I disagree. And if we are going to reduce the need for monster office blocks and long commutes and get dramatically better energy efficiencies by making e-work as efficient as office work, we have to address these issues.
too. much. information.

Let's look at her propositions in greater detail.

First ... Email/text/phone conversations do not convey anywhere near as much information as an in-person meeting. Ask anyone who's ever done computer dating. And that additional information still matters, even in a business context. My strongest business contacts are always those people I've spent time with in person. Why? Because physical proximity opens doors to a fuller connection with people. You get a far better sense of who they are, and you're also far more likely to talk about non-business topics. Their family life. Their history. The terrible vacation disaster they had last month. And that translates into both a stronger connection and a stronger working relationship.


ah, nothing like white male friends of my age at the office.

First, let me say that I work with a crew that puts out TreeHugger and Planet Green from all over the world, and for a year and a half we have kept a continuous chat going on Skype. I have a real sense of who my co-workers are, and consider them friends. I know when Jaymi walks her dog and when Mike moves his apartment.


hello, let's have a discussion about my latest idea for the future of our business now that my wife has left.

I am also twice Jaymi's and Mike's age. In a normal office there would not be that much social chitchat, as people's circles divide up because of age, sex, race and all kinds of social factors. But in the internet office, nobody knows you're a dog, we are all who we need to be to work together. I think that builds a stronger connection and a stronger working relationship. If I yakked on and off with a cute 30ish girl over the cube farm wall in an office one might think I am hitting on her. When she is in San Francisco and I am in Toronto, it isn't an issue.

Second ... While one could argue that the above connections could be made in sporadic meetings, not requiring an office, remote communication doesn't nurture the same level and quality of "hey, what do you think about this idea" casual, quick collaboration that physical proximity allows. It's far tougher to be creative in a vacuum ... or even within the constraints of separate locations. Convenience, access, and physical energy and synergy all matter.


hey, what do you think about this idea?

Wrong again. In the real office, if you have a "hey, what do you think about this idea" you have to go find the person. You have to build up the courage to say it in person and be abused about it in person, and risk that the person may race off to the boss and beat you to them with the idea. Stick it into the virtual online water cooler, and it is far easier. It can be ignored, it can be picked up, but it is documented and traceable and it is yours. The traditional office politics don't exist. I would submit that there is more creativity, better access (the boss is watching too) and greater convenience- I don't have to get out of my chair.

Third ... while audio and teleconferencing are terrific resources, they're still the next best thing to being there. It's tough to get high-quality discussions with time delays and uncertainty about who is talking, when. And ... raise your hand if you've never done other tasks during a group teleconference. Employers know this, too.


White men without Blackberries

Right. How many times have you been at an energy-sucking meeting where they are not talking about anything that has any relevance to you and you are just dying to go do some work. How many have tried to read their Blackberries in their lap. I have too many energy-sucking meetings, but I can raise my virtual hand (we run chats simultaneously with our calls) and I can work until something relevant comes up. That is a lot more productive than being trapped in a room for hours every day. I cannot think of anything better for business productivity than enabling people to do other tasks during a group teleconference. It is better than being there.

Lane Wallace claims to have worked from home for nineteen years, but perhaps writing for print is different, Certainly she has missed what has been happening lately that changes everything; Seth Godin described it in Time Magazine's issue on the Future of Work: but that is really the present of work for a lot of us:


now who is at their desk?

When you do come in to work, your boss will know. If anything can be measured, it will be measured. The boss will know when you log in, what you type, what you access. Not just the boss but also your team. Internet technology makes working as a team, synchronized to a shared goal, easier and more productive than ever. But as in a three-legged-race, you'll instantly know when a teammate is struggling, because that will slow you down as well. Some people will embrace this new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We'll go from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. It will make some people yearn for jobs like those in the old days, when we fought traffic, sat in a cube, typed memos, took a long lunch and then sat in traffic again.

I live that now. Every Monday morning I get an email with stats on how badly my posts did last week, and which other writer cleaned my clock with what inane post that I thought too stupid to write about. If my Skype symbol changes to "away" my editor knows it. If I take 15 minutes for lunch I put it on the water cooler. I miss the one hour lunch and the ten hour day and my desk away from home. But I wouldn't change it for anything.

More on e-work and home offices:
Working From Home Makes More Sense Than Ever
How to Go Green: Work from Home
TreeHugger Picks: Telecommuting
OK, Telecommuting is Green, What about Skype and IM?

Tags: Green Jobs

Best of TreeHugger