On air: The end of the office?

I’m just back from the opening reception at WeMedia and I wanted to share on conversation I had while there. Ritchie Lucas runs a company called Think Factory. He believes that the way we build our working lives around offices is incredibly inefficient (and believes the net can connect the unemployed with those who could use their ability). As well as that, he told me that information is now more important to all of us than people and relationships with them. We don’t need to see the person who’s providing us with a service, and we don’t need to see the people we work with he argued. We just need the information they can give us. It’s a radical idea that would change how we work and how we get others to work for us. Now of course, he ‘s hoping this will happen as his business is built on this, but do you think Ritchie’s logic holds?

53 Responses to “On air: The end of the office?”

  1. 1 Duncan
    March 10, 2010 at 04:41

    Agree – to a point. I have worked for myself for 10 years desigining and running development centres for management. We have a company of two, but bring in consultants to do bits that are needed (sometimes just on-line, sometimes to do up-front work). I live in the Philippines but work in HKG. My business partner lives and works in Vancouver and Hong Kong. We have no office but an accommodation / registered address in HK. We sometimes have a need for illustrations, accounting bits, etc for case studies and do teh collaboration online. The only thing I would say about working form home is that one does miss the odd bit of social and work interaction. I was travelling into HKG Central from my home (30 minutes by rail) the other day at commuter time and it again struck me what a complete waste of resources 9-5 (or 9-7 in HKG’s case) is. Transportation companies have to buy rolling stock, buses etc. to cater for peaks and this investment stands idle for much of the day. My idea would be to have a business hub in every community where people can use offices/desks to work remotely for their employers or on their own account. Free lancers with talents could advertise on-line to the entire hub community and perhaps set themselves up in one of them. We cut out some communiting and can share.

  2. 2 jared atiang
    March 10, 2010 at 04:55

    this sounds plausible, only that in africa, i dont see this actualised in our lifetime

  3. 3 Subhash C Mehta
    March 10, 2010 at 07:49

    That is the tragedy with our working attitude these days; it is becoming more & more materialistic and intraparietal. We, somehow, have formed this notion, that, the things would work out better or there would be less hassles and better results/output, if the employers/participants/workers don’t sit together or see/confront each other. You cannot build offices around your working lives; it has to be the other way round. And, as for efficiency and discipline, it depends mainly on the organizational and managerial capability of the employers; they just cannot afford to avoid/shirk or hide their responsibilities/capabilities. Besides, the much needed approachability or personal-contact, and the humane-touch in the employer/employee relationship, cannot be done away with.

  4. 4 steve
    March 10, 2010 at 09:48

    If you can “telecommute” to your job, it can also easily be outsourced overseas. Be careful what you wish for.

  5. 5 Ahmed Jaffer
    March 10, 2010 at 09:51

    In some ways yes, and yet in many ways no; it really depends on what industry you’re talking about. There are still too many things that rely on paper documents. Human Resources will never be digitized, nor anything with a possible legal implication, or a signature requirement. The same for fields which require you to have some sort of card (like a private insurance card) or to show identification. It will be a long time, if ever, until businesses/agencies will be satisfied with you “proving” your identity over the internet. Will every employee have to have a VPN at home, to connect to work securely? That then ironically adds a level of insecurity, because anyone could be at the terminal, and the bosses/coworkers wouldn’t know.

  6. 6 gurt
    March 10, 2010 at 10:36

    Yes, it IS true- technically. But try working from home and you would be surprised at how few others are willing to even respond to their work mails when you ask for information.
    Most people are social beings and seem to thrive on the interaction with others, a lot of information is passed along in the social setting that does not make it into mails or onto web sites.

  7. 7 T
    March 10, 2010 at 11:25

    As the global economy continues, this idea will become more common. Tim Ferris talks about essentially the same thing in his book “The Four Hour Workweek”.

    If you can work from home, you get more done. If you outsource a lot, this leaves more time to do what you REALLY want to do. If a CEO can outsource, why can’t the average person? And he has a point.

  8. March 10, 2010 at 12:52

    It is all all about telecommuting. Ideas, logical use of them, communication, brainstorming and reaching critical decisions are the key steps and can be done via video-conferencing.. Socialising is not really necessary! Sitting in an office with colleagues has become outmoded.

  9. 9 Bob in Qld
    March 10, 2010 at 12:57

    His logic holds but doesn’t even go far enough. We’re not that many years from being able to tie virtual reality technology to internet bandwidth, enabling people to share experiences remotely the same way they could in an office. At that point, people will be able to live anywhere in the world they want and keep working.

    As an aside, before my retirement, I spent a couple of years doing freelance consulting from home. What shocked me was that 4 or 5 hours uninterrupted at home were equivalent to 8 or 9 hours in an office–and that’s before I consider the hours wasted commuting every day.

    Yup. It’ll happen.

  10. 10 patti in cape coral
    March 10, 2010 at 13:42

    I was a transcriptionist working at home for several years until most of the doctor’s offices in my area started looking for big transcription houses instead of individual businesses, so now I work from an office. I really enjoyed working at home and wish I could do it again. Taxes and health insurance were big issues when I was self-employed, but I still felt it was worth it. It depends on the person, though. My co-worker doesn’t like working from home, she likes coming into the office and the structure of the office day. There are still some opportunities to work from home as a transcriptionist, but they are not paying much. I also think that once voice recognition software is finely honed, I will have to look for something else.

  11. 11 gary indiana
    March 10, 2010 at 13:56

    Mr. Lucas’ vision is exceedingly narrow! Suggesting humanity doesn’t need personally-interactive, productive activities is as absurd as suggesting it doesn’t need parents – just fertilized ova. Should we think Mark’s and Ros’ impact upon the young people around them could be duplicated without their presence? Would we still enjoy the soccer match if all the players “phone in” their performances?

  12. 12 John in Salem
    March 10, 2010 at 14:52

    It’s not a radical new idea – Alvin Toffler said exactly the same thing 40 years ago in “Future Shock”.
    And in any case, not everybody can do that, I’m a crown and bridge technician, and while I may occasionally do my work at home I still have to go into the lab every day to complete any job I do. Some professions require a physical connection to the market and always will.

  13. 13 Mike in Seattle
    March 10, 2010 at 15:28

    The only way this would happen is if aging bosses get with the program and understand that face time doesn’t equal productivity.

  14. 14 Cabe UK
    March 10, 2010 at 16:07

    Depends what sort of *work* you are talking about – Office work is easy to organise remotely – there is just so much technology to assist you in being able to ‘be’ remote… for the rest I can’t see how it would work out – lots of workers need supervision, time recording and just plain old assistance, – and we already have an online network that links workers to jobs (we call it the local Job-Shop & Temp Agencies etc…) Otherwise we’d have to go completely electronic and have a type of remote ‘monitoring’ of the workforce – similar to Skype or the Police Street monitoring, to make sure they were working!
    But ultimately with everything being made remote will they still need humans to do the job…?
    (I agree Bob with the time wasted commuting etc. – Although working from home was no better! I used to start work in my home office in my jammies at 0730am – and if nothing interrupted me, I’d work a straight 12/14 hour day – sometimes without even eating because time flies and you are over involved! Then I’d just fall into bed still in my jammies! . I can understand some people wanting to go into work! – You actually work harder if you are out of an office environment!!

  15. 15 Peter Gizzi UK
    March 10, 2010 at 16:18

    Fascinating idea. Someone of course will still have to empty dusbins, sweep pavements, and do physical repairs to buildings etc.

    If these “connections” are global who pays what to whom and in which country does one pay tax?

    It could of course lead to fewer cars which would be a bonus.

  16. March 10, 2010 at 16:31

    I believe using both ways would be more efficient, but disagree that his way of thinking is applicable to all field of works. Besides, not all the communities have got access to the net. In fact there are some social service which demand team work.

  17. 17 Tony from Singapura
    March 10, 2010 at 17:10

    I manage software developement teams that reside in different time zones. There are some things you cant do effectivly without having some critical mass of engineers breathing the same air and sharing the same germs. Even with skype, video conferencing, telephone, email – all the nice telecommunications technologies, you cant beat same room colaboration for many tasks.

    So I dont agree this applies to all work situations.

  18. 18 T Baldwinson
    March 10, 2010 at 17:11

    To a very small degree I would accept the idea. But we are programmed as social animals; think of the way those kept in solitary confinement break down so easily. Until the Industrial Revolution very few would travel far to work. The lives of most were simply hand-to-mouth, and short. We have more technical things today to help. But they aren’t always helpful if they could be entered by a hacker. & still there is the need of the individual for company.

  19. 19 T
    March 10, 2010 at 17:49

    If anyon thinks that telecommuting won’t work, just check out sites like Craig’s List. Look in their classified sections and you’ll see the huge number of people w/home businesses.

    Another aspect of startups? There’s only so much capital available worldwide. And many banks AND venture capital funds aren’t lending. How then do you keep going in an environment like that?

  20. 20 Bob in Florida
    March 10, 2010 at 18:32

    I have been working from home for several years now with the occasional road trip to a client. With the several meeting software products on the market and the use of web cams it is possible to even have the face-to-face.

    Some posters lament the loss of the social interaction of the office but for me I don’t miss it a bit.

    But working from home obviously does not work for manufacturing businesses, R&D and the like.

  21. March 10, 2010 at 19:18

    It seems that this idea will have to be in the balance,it will work for some,not for others.Take your pick!

  22. March 10, 2010 at 19:19

    Although the internet facilitates different types of work can be done at home, yet work at the office has its charm as it allows opportunity for co-workers to connect socially and professionally. It’s enough to seek friends online without ever meeting them.

    Maybe one advantage of doing away with the office is that there can be less traffic jam in cities and less use of cars to keep cities under less pollution.

    However, there should more means to enhance direct contact with people instead of getting them isolated and living in a virtual world.

  23. March 10, 2010 at 19:31

    I completely agree with this. Just today I have turned down a job because my commute would be an hour each way. If I were able to work from home, which should be possible in my field of web design, I would be able to start work immediately.

  24. 24 nora
    March 10, 2010 at 19:34

    When I had a house full of teenagers at the experimental age, I move my office home. No teenage pregnancies, a happy outcome.

  25. 25 Bert
    March 10, 2010 at 19:36

    Radical? Hardly. We have been operating that way for decades, and PCs have made it a very viable option for any business that is based on information.

    Any company that does business with multiple “offices” (real or virtual) throughout the world cannot help but operate remotely. And our company, along with many others, now also offers the option of telecommunting. So it’s not at all difficult to avoid the laborious and wasteful physical commute or the constant personal contact.

    For engineering work, certainly, information has always been key, and interpersonal relationships become just a catalyst in getting efficent information flow. The job has to get done, that’s the most important part.

  26. 26 Mike in Seattle
    March 10, 2010 at 19:37

    A question for your guest: I’ve found that bosses are often distrustful of their employees and when hearing ideas such as this complain that employees will simply goof off.

    How do you counter these attitudes?

  27. 27 erin
    March 10, 2010 at 19:38

    I agree that offices are inefficient, but I don’t agree that information is more important than people and relationships. I’ve worked remotely for the last year and a half from my home with people all over the world. I connect with everyone I need to talk with every day more frequently (and definitely more relevantly) via Skype, Skype video, WebEx, and email.

  28. 28 Lisa from Pennsylvania, US
    March 10, 2010 at 19:41

    I think it depends a lot on your industry and whether or not you absolutely need that face to face interaction. I think most industries have certain situations where face to face interaction is vital but on a day-to-day basis for 8 hours a day it’s not necessary. I think there’s a definite movement towards being more flexible and allowing people to be in the office (or not) and that should continue to grow. I know I’d be a lot happier if at least one day a week I could work from home and not spend at least 2.5 hours commuting.

  29. 29 Judy in Seattle
    March 10, 2010 at 19:44

    I’ve worked at home for 7 years, both as a manager and individual contributor. What you lose is what I call “osmosis” learning. My team spends a great deal of time figuring out new tools and problems independently. I know from managing a large group in cubes many of these issues would be handled much more quickly. WFH is lonesome too. However, the benefits of handling home issues is priceless.

  30. 30 Ernesto Provencio
    March 10, 2010 at 19:44

    When it takes you one hour to move 4 miles through traffic, you’ll agree that a telecommuting office job is a great idea. I think if the workforce can work from home or a more local office space you’ll have happier people. I heard Cisco has a great telepresense screen. I can’t wait for it to be implemented everywhere.

  31. 31 patti in cape coral
    March 10, 2010 at 19:44

    When I worked at home I had a network of co-workers that I would e-mail and call if I was stumped or had an idea about something, and if there was an issue that was big enough, we might meet for coffee and discuss it. Working at home does not necessarily mean you will be isolated or cannot brainstorm with colleagues. Of course, I know this doesn’t work for every kind of job.

  32. 32 Lisa
    March 10, 2010 at 19:46

    I’m sitting here at WeMedia working on my magazine job while listening to the conference. I love the flexibility and sanity of not having to commute or work long hours at an office. However, as many have said, we are social animals. It’s not just a matter of face time with the boss — being around others, brainstorming, can make us smarter. It’s part of why we still have cities, and don’t just live in the serene countryside.

  33. 33 Dee Kieft
    March 10, 2010 at 19:46

    We have already lost our social skills and interaction with other people is important . People don’t even look at each other because they are texting or on the their phone. Technology should not replace friendship and companioship. Working from home can be very lonely as i know so well.

  34. 34 Alan in AZ
    March 10, 2010 at 19:46

    I think the Office will continue to evolve depending on the type of business that it deals with. My fellow office personnel have to be present since our work involves more hands on with parts and processes. And it will always be that way. But for a company that never sees it’s products prior to shipping and who’s customers may encompass the globe, it will continue to evolve into a less personal, more automated facilitation based entity.

    We can see that now with so many customer service departments that guide you through a variety of applicable options via phone or the web. Some companies will always need people and others may never need people again with the exception of web designers.

  35. March 10, 2010 at 19:47

    Working virtually as opposed to in an office setting completely dispels the worst part about working in an office: “Office Politics” or personality conflicts. Everyone does their job and can interact in a non-threatening way with each other via email, Skype, telephone, etc.

  36. 36 Jeleana from Trinidad
    March 10, 2010 at 19:49

    This idea will be the reality in a matter of years.In the office I work at its not necessary to see the persons you work with,just obtain the information.So it really depends on where you work!

  37. 37 mers in oregon
    March 10, 2010 at 19:50

    As much as I would love to work from my house, wearing my pajamas with my dog at my feet and saving on gas money, I have numerous experiences where face-to-face meetings are the most beneficial and efficient way to accomplish tasks. I would settle for a 50-50 arrangement. 🙂

  38. 38 Phyllis,
    March 10, 2010 at 19:50

    I agree that the information replaces the relationship. That had become true for me

  39. March 10, 2010 at 19:51

    Hi. I’m a freelance graphic designer online right now listening to the program and looking for work. 🙂 I love what I do but after 4 years of working at home I’ve found it quite isolating. There are many ways to get my people fix and can take my work anywhere but do often wish I had an in-house position where I could be surrounded by other creatives. However, I do enjoy the lifestyle of taking breaks when I need to and the flexibility of working anywhere in the world.

  40. March 10, 2010 at 19:51

    Some people can’t have the gut to work if they aren’t surrounded by co-workers. Asking them to work at home can make them less inclined to work energetically. They risk becoming robotic as there is no human touch in what they do.

  41. 41 Jeff Barr
    March 10, 2010 at 19:52

    I am an online graduate student at Penn State and I am a teaching assistant in the same program.

    There are several elements to this debate:

    The office in many cases now exists in a new medium, Starbucks, an online program, or ones own chair. There are numerous ways to adapt these locations to make them better induce efficiency; working out of the office with a co-worker for example.

    There is a continuous trend of using technology to solve organization problems at the expense of more human solutions. Less incidental interaction will occur, for better or worse.

    The effectiveness of this approach really depends on the people involved. Shirking will result, for some it will outweigh the benefits. Personally, it is difficult to separate my life from my work responsibilities from home.

    Great Show!


  42. 42 Margaret
    March 10, 2010 at 19:54

    As an attorney, I have to have an office. I cannot meet with my clients in my home. In fact, I do not like to take work home at all, because keeping work and family separate is better for me mentally. Plus, I confer regularly with the other attorneys in my office about my cases, and it is so much easier to talk and look at documents together than it would be to type everything. We still use hard copies of many documents, and have our copiers, our fax machine and our postage machine in a workroom in our office. We hold depositions, mediations and many other meetings in our office.

    • 43 Bert
      March 10, 2010 at 20:23

      A lot of this real-time interaction can also be accomplished over a telephone, with all parties sharing copies of the same documents over their PCs.

      The office can be used only on occasion, by different groups that might actually need the space at certain times, saving a lot of commercial real estate.

      For all of the excuses one hears about the benefit of interpersonal relationships, there is a tremendous benefit to the virtual personal relationships one can have with scores of people all over the world. Surely, having close contact with people from everywhere must count for something, no?

      More and more, I am suspicious of those who keep calling for “face to face” meetings. My reaction to these requests is the requester is one of those who likes to hear himself talk, and hates to get any productive work done.

  43. 44 Earl from San Francisco, CA
    March 10, 2010 at 19:54

    Imagine an office where two employees with no formal reporting relationship develop a passing friendship around the water-cooler. They engage in water-cooler conversations that create a casual link between two otherwise unrelated departments. They make small talk, chat about work, discuss some new initiative or a recent project. Slowly but surely, they expose each other to new ideas outside their respective domains of expertise, until one day, quite by accident, two seemingly incompatible ideas find a way to fit together in a brilliant new way. Out of this, a new product idea or a new way of doing things is born. These kinds of unexpected connections are what help a business stay on top of a continuously changing marketplace.

    Now imagine an office where a majority of people telecommute, or work in isolated cubicles in isolated departments: where interaction is formalized and limited to only what is planned and scheduled. In this office, the potential for learning is greatly diminished, and what little innovation happens here—happens slowly.

    In response to the livable cities comment earlier, I think we see interesting things when we extrapolate this issue to the level of our cities. In American cities, we live in isolated communities, drive in isolated metal containers, and work in isolated business parks. There are no chance encounters, no free exchange of ideas. Everything is planned—controlled. This isolation has narrowed our thinking, closed our eyes to new possibilities, and left us weak and divided over the most fundamental of issues, with neither a strong middle class nor a stable middle ground to help bridge the gaps.

  44. 45 Earl from San Francisco, CA
    March 10, 2010 at 20:05

    I think it’s interesting that the 2.5 hour commute is a key factor in the push for a more “virtual” definition of office. In the short run, telecommuting may help to alleviate some of the stress associated with long automobile commutes. But in the long run, more telecommuting allows people to live further and further away from their places of work, in larger and larger houses that contribute to more and more urban sprawl, ultimately leaving America more isolated and more divided than it already is.

  45. 46 Mo
    March 10, 2010 at 20:07

    I do not think this is a bad idea but its practicality is a bit questionable. As a company, one of the key responsibilities of the managers is to command the resources in order to acheive the set goals. Human resource is one of the key resource in the development of companies and institutions, and I believe it needs much more attention. I thing we need to put more of the human face in our work place than machines and equipments. I believe the word civilization does not mean every man for himselve, evryman for the machine or creating indivdual worlds so to speak, but I think it means “how best we can live harmonious with other human beings”.

    I think we need to strike a balance here such a good idea can not be thrown away or be at the bottom of the developmental agenda. What can be considered as the first step is to have 1/4 of the time away from work, later on have 1/2 and so on. Let us go back and review the strategy whether we are more productive or not as we spend less time at work. I think we can approach this from a statistical poit of viiew so that we have evidence that it works. Let the professionals conduct trials and produce results of which the rest of the world can learn and possibly adopt.

  46. 47 Cabe UK
    March 10, 2010 at 20:10

    I know it sounds a bit drastic but Maybe we should be saying – “is this the end of Society?”
    All this technology is already making our world shrink and mankind is becoming very insular.. Everything is made easier and more convenient and it’s not just 1st world countries – the 3rd world is rapidly catching up with access to mobile and internet technology. Everywhere you look someone is plugged into something and either watching/ listening/ or talking via a mobile tech-device. Kids are weaned both at home and at school on TV, internet games, online information, music, mobile texting instead of actually doing it physically or speaking face to face so that we become more private and separated by degrees?
    …..It is inevitable that remote working will become the norm. – It’s convenient but also a bit of an evolutionary backward step perhaps, because one day we’ll find that being plugged into our small 6×6 foot cell – will be our whole world? 😦

  47. 48 Colin L Beadon
    March 11, 2010 at 00:28

    It is most certainly an energy saver and a road unclogger, an accident reducer, and a great way to save time traveling, rush hours, building of more energy consuming business places, busses, trains, airline flights. The oil companies won’t like it, nor the airline industry, nor taxis cab services, car salesmen. There are many cons like that, that go against the establishment of business, if such a system got full sway. And there is a great possiblility of getting ripped off too.
    It would be immoral for true business relationship. I want to know who I’m dealing with, shakes hands, share a meal and a laugh. How can I do business with a voice, or an email. The more I think about it, the more to hell with that idea.

  48. 49 T
    March 11, 2010 at 03:31

    Just checked out some outsourcing sites. And the per hour rates range from (US)$4 on up.

    If you use a virtual assistant to make your life easier and more productive, does your boss need to know? In this global economic meltdown, everybody’s looking at the bottom line, right? If you’re not breaking any laws and are more productive, you have more options if management tries to lay you off or sack you. Because we all know that more options equals power.

  49. 50 Ahmed Jaffer
    March 11, 2010 at 05:33

    There is a general consensus that working remotely is the way of the future, given the compatibility of the nature of the particular job, of course. If you look at the global leaders, however, this isn’t being adopted on a wide scale. Google, Microsoft, and other global corporations have the majority of their employees working together in buildings, rather than remotely.

  50. March 11, 2010 at 14:50

    Ok – how many well-paid IT types writing code would be happy to see their jobs outsourced to India or China, where someone with a good degree would work for a fraction of what you’re paid?

    How many secretarial jobs and admin jobs could go the same way? There could be a ‘Dutch auction’ for every viable remote job, with the lowest bidder getting the nod.

    Globalisation is a major threat to our Western ways of life, as wages for these types of job are forced downwards. Think about how much you get compared to a worker from a 3rd world country who’d do the same job gladly – and accept fewer terms and conditions. You’d have business owners getting richer (for a while) whilst our workers got poorer. Sure, it’d be fairer – until every working person earned roughly the same wage the whole world over, and nobody would be able to buy anything except very basic food. Then there would be no point in making anything except very basic food. Sorry, but I hate the idea.

  51. 52 Ibrahim in UK
    March 11, 2010 at 15:16

    Humans are social beings, we need social interactions, we look for them. Trust is mostly built through these interactions. Relationships, including teamwork, thrive on these interactions. Just think when you had to give support or advice to a work colleague in another country, whether by phone or email. This e-relationship still feels incomplete and there is still the desire to physically meet the other individual.
    It’s not required for business, but it’s required for feeling human.

  52. March 11, 2010 at 16:20

    I’d say it might work for some and not for others. You have people that love routines, go from home to work every day, do what they have to do and go back. On the other hand, you have those who have enough discipline to work on their own, accomplish their tasks independently from where they are.

    Offices are labs of behavior control. Co-working spaces now are trending, but that is a complete different subject. Working teams can now do it from all over the world and accomplish tasks on time and budget.

    I support the work at home model!

    You can join more conversations about working at home on Startups.com Q&A. It is interesting to go there and share with others experiences, tips and advices!

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