With advances in communicative technology, virtual workplaces are on the rise. What makes the physical office setting so imperative for modern business?
Every time I read about the future of work, I see a focus almost entirely on remote work, virtual workplaces and stories of people working from coffee shops. Yes, overall, this is a rapidly growing trend, increasing by over 60% in recent years. I personally have worked remotely for almost two decades, but in general this is still pretty infrequent. What we need to realize is that the overall number is still quite small. According to Global Workplace Analytics’ State of Telework in the U.S. and based on the U.S. Census Bureau, the total number of people who work solely from home is still only around three million.
On the other hand, those who work only part of their time from home, or on the road, are estimated to be a much larger 45% of all U.S. jobs. So, the idea of organizations with most of their employees working from practically anywhere they want is still a distant vision for the broader economy. More accurately, the idea of a significantly virtual organization with no need for office space, or everyone sitting in co-working spaces, is not the reality for the majority of companies. And it won’t be for a while, if ever.
While you will need to support more remote workers, the hybrid office-plus-remote worker scenario will continue to be the biggest concern for office, IT and HR managers. The pros and cons of what this does for employees aside, consider the complexity in managing resources for such situations.
In one view, you could gain some efficiencies by sharing office rooms, or desks. That idea appeals to office managers more than employees—what employee wouldn’t prefer people to not mess around with their desk space, files, or stapler just as they have left them?
Yet, “mobility desks” or offices are gaining popularity in larger companies. What makes this more acceptable is a mind shift away from the primary view of ‘my office’ as a specific location in their company building, to seeing it more as a virtual space they access from a laptop or smartphone.
This shift from the physical to virtual is made possible by technology: powerful laptops or mobile devices, high speed wireless networks, VPNs, enterprise portals, and, most of all, employee resource management tools in software.
I recently spoke to Elizabeth Dukes, co-author of Wide Open Workspace: Trailblazing Solutions for Tomorrows Workforce (WCT Publishing, 2014), and EVP & CMO at iOffice, Inc. on how organizations are managing resources in this hybrid future.
Office and Facilities Managers today are typically responsible for all the resources that keep the office running and employees operational: coordinating office space use, assigning and tracking laptops and personal assets, managing common resources such as network printers and devices, keeping office supply inventory, building maintenance, the mailroom chase, and so on. Their role intersects with IT (devices, network access, quotas), Security (in-office, personal devices, intranet, internet), internal supply chains (purchasing, recycling, shipping), HR (on-boarding, exits, employee wellbeing), even PR (Corporate Social Responsibility programs).
In a connected business, these are easily accessible and viewable by the employee through the intranet portal, to see how much they have used as well as to request and track resources—e.g., every time you need to book a conference room, find quick directions to a local office in another town, have a package shipped to a salesperson, etc. Similarly, it is critical to operations all around to see utilization of any of these resources, forecast the demand for resources as the organization grows, moves or pivots.
As we move to the hybrid work scenario, the types of resources and their physical locations may change, but the need does not. More likely, we should count on an increased need to track and manage these resources as they become more mobile.
New needs are starting to emerge as well. Consider this: the LEED energy efficient building standards are not simply about environmental management, but also on how buildings are designed to encourage employees towards more environmentally supportive behaviors like cycling to work. An employee bike rack or lockers then becomes a new type of resource to coordinate assignments, in parallel to parking.
Other needs are being driven by other future work trends such as co-working. When I visited & worked out of the Wearable World offices, a tech incubator in San Francisco, there were actually two facilities organizations involved: the office tower building management, and the Wearable World co-working team. The office building managed overall building access and leased offices to the company.
The incubator likewise supports multiple startups focused around Wearable and Internet of Things technologies (e.g., crowdfunding-superstar Skully Helmets, brainwave analysis tool Personal Neuro, etc.) Startups and independents share tables and offices as assigned and re-assigned. The issues are similar to that of a single larger mid-sized organization, just split between multiple actual companies.
Just as a larger organization would have an employee portal, Ms. Dukes explained that customers who use iOffice software to manage co-working spaces have similar needs for the entrepreneurs they support. They all need to welcome them to the environment, familiarize them with what resources are available, or coordinate shared assets. There are also unique issues to co-working that they need to educate new entrepreneurs on: respecting the privacy, security and intellectual property of other organizations.
As mentioned in the beginning, while new forms such as co-working is a growing trend, it is still far from the norm. According to Ms. Dukes, this seems to be growing faster in the tech centers of the West and East coast, and less so in other areas of the U.S. While large companies have an undeniable need to manage facilities, she also sees growth in mid-market organizations.
The analytics from facilities management software offer a new dimension of capabilities and issues. Propinquity—the outcomes that occur from being physically near others—is gaining more significance as more start moving towards remote work. This is the property of collaborating in a physical office space that creates new serendipities and opportunities that you don’t really get when working entirely virtual or remote. Without it, you don’t run into your peers, or come across new challenges and ideas that may lead to new ideas, collaboration or innovation.
The future perhaps Facilities Management analytics can tell us even more about the patterns of how we work. Prof. Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland and his team at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory has studied the implications of how physical nearness and interaction patterns describe our tendencies to collaborate. Using ‘sociometers’, their research mapped how people moved about in their daily workday and who they talked to, to discover patterns of interaction across people. So, while we hear a great deal about mapping and analytics of online social networks, there is an even bigger opportunity to map our dynamic physical work networks.
We are only starting to understand what the future of work looks like. In my view, the imagined idea of entirely virtual organizations is similar to how we used to think of the future as full of flying cars and colonies in space. Reality is much more invested in hybrid in-office plus remote scenarios. Physical space is still a strong element of work that we need to keep track of, and understand better to learn how we truly collaborate.
Rawn Shah is an independent analyst, author and speaker focused on collaboration, social business and the future of work.