Does the office have a future?

It’s an important question to ask. In the post GFC climate, companies are running a lot leaner with fewer staff. The lines between contractors popping in and employees are blurring. Furthermore, we have many more people telecommuting and then, there is the rise of the Wi Fi Warriors, the people you see all over town in cafes, bars and restaurants tapping away on a lap top, their smart phone sitting next to the latte. They don’t need the office.

A new survey, reported in the Management Issues journal, reveals that six out of 10 workers around the world feel they don’t need an office any more. They say they  they can work as productively at home or on the move as they can in the office and they want the tools and management flexibility to make that happen.
Mind you, the survey was conducted by technology giant Cisco which would have a vested interest in persuading companies to buy the tools to let employees work wherever they want. Not exactly impartial. Still if we put that to one side, the survey’s findings do raise some interesting questions. Are companies prepared to go down this direction.

A number are already in this space. One of the best examples I can think of is Rentoid,  a really cool local outfit that positions itself as the eBay of renting. Rentoid doesn’t really have an office and has employees right around the world. It has 10 staff. Five of them are local, the others are overseas, with coders in Russia and administrators in India. Company founder Steve Sanmartino told me: “I don’t care where they are, I just care they get it done. I have never even met these people face to face.  We just talk on Skype and chat. I trust them and they tell me how many hours it took to build a certain part of the website.  I don’t know how many hours but I know it’s done and I trust them and I just pay them for the hours they said they did. We have never been an office. Everyone works where they want. I don’t care where they are, I just care they get it done.’’

The point of that story is that you can run a good business these days without an office. Can we expect more companies to move in this direction? It’s certainly a lot cheaper.

Or is it more that what we call the office will morph into different places? So the Wi Fi Warrior is in effect working from an office when they are sitting in a café. Similarly, people like myself are sitting at the office when they are working from home.

It’s a point taken up by Jenni Pavlou, a specialist for SMEs with Brainwave HR. As reported here, she says managing a highly decentralized workforce will become the norm over the next 10 years. That means the office of the future is going to be three places: work, home and somewhere else. And that will create real management challenges for companies dealing with staff who need to do things like care for family members, from the old and frail to children. The focus will have to be less about supervision and more about recruiting and managing the kind of people who can deliver results from anywhere.

It also means that corporations could emerge from the financial renting less real estate.

I’m not predicting the end of the office. That’s about as likely to happen as the paperless office. But it will look very different, and probably a lot smaller.

What do you think? Do you need to work in an office to be productive? Or can you work anywhere? Which do you prefer? What will office of the future look like? Does the office have a future?