Wednesday, May 12, 2010

T-Rex Towers: Do Offices Face Extinction? (Part Two)

The last third of 2001 was significant for the concept of office development on two fronts. The main event, indubitably, was the destruction of most of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and a large piece of the Pentagon, the world’s largest government office building. This temporarily, at least, tweaked the noses of Americans seized by the concept that “the business of America is business.” It also prompted Richard Florida, one of America’s leading urbanism thinkers, to write an article positing that the devastation might affect development of future high-rise properties altogether due to security and insurance concerns. Manhattan, apparently, begs to differ.

The second event of far quieter publicity to September 11th but significant substance was the publication of a groundbreaking study in December, 2001, by The Rand Corporation with Gartner, supported by 22 industry participants, on workplace strategies for the future. That report expressed that workplaces would need to be far more “agile” than traditional view of offices and manufacturing plants development contemplates. In contrast to the major drivers of office development expressed by Kohn and Katz (see the prior post), radically new considerations appear, primarily stemming from “globalization.” By that term, I mean: the universality of the economic infrastructure (which the recent financial meltdown has amply illustrated is truly interdependent – or watch how Greece’s economic collapse affects the rest of the European Union, starting with currency hits); of communicative work forces; of shared technologies; and of environmental degradation sensitivity.

Here are a few affects of this globalization:

First is an increase in competition from international sources and attendant economic fallout. Organizations that survive the latest global financial tsunami must continue to turn their focus from sheer outputs of goods and services to saving. Volumes of production and marketing initiatives alone will not override bottom line expense excesses. Saving money is an imperative of equal value to productivity. Massive capital expense on owned or leased workspace is counterintuitive.

Second is altering workspace social and environmental dynamics. The old model of single-purpose office buildings is non-responsive to the new, mobile ways of working. Recently trendy work methods like tele-working and job-sharing are harbingers of what urbanists and industrial engineers refer to increasingly as “distributed work.” One graphic way to illustrate the essence of distributed work comes out of a study by DEGW, an international workplace consultancy. DEGW concludes that office workers sit at their desks only about 35% of their workday. Since most office operations use only a four or five day work-week, viewed from a 24 hour clock, most office workers sit at desks less than 10% of the entire calendar week. This reflects neither cost-consciousness nor carbon-footprint awareness. In short, it’s wasteful; and the “cure” is to substitute work spaces that, in the words of Despina Katsikakis of DEGW, will be “stimulating, supportive and sustainable.”

Third is envisioning the integration of a global distributed work force. I like the visual recall of the late Peter Graves, the Impossible Mission Force team leader (from the middle 1960s and early 1970s TV series), choosing from the pile of dossiers stuffed in his briefcase (by the way, why did the other 6 candidates never get picked? But I digress.) his next, temporary unit of superspies. Work units are less likely to consist of full time employees of long tenure in a single company. Instead, project teams are likely to consist of free-lance problem solvers who, akin to tradesmen on a construction site, periodically are “mobilized” and later demobilized by a number of general contracting businesses. These individuals may be linked through professional or social networking Web sites on a continuous basis, sharing a lengthy history of overlapping, interactive shared assignments. Flexible work environments will be required for persons who enter and leave a work community at irregular intervals. Those environments will reflect the control and choice of how, when and where these “task specialists” perform. Providing physical space flexibility will be a key to organizational resiliency in future decades.

Fourth is the adaptation of communication technologies to the new, agile workplace. Indeed, the technological innovations drive the agility potentials; for one thing, they mark the obsolescence of offices as places to store heavy pieces of equipment and voluminous files. These innovations are anchored by the trend toward ubiquitous computing environments, sustained by an upcoming generation of youth who know essentially nothing else of the history of work environments. These conditions must have their own set of posts on this blog, because, well, there’s a lot there to ruminate about, starting with Cloud Computing, paperless offices and virtual data rooms. Oh, my.


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