Why are Digital Giants Building Offices

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Digital WorkDo we really need an office to work in? Then why are we expected to respond to office mails and phone calls even at the dinner table? France opened the New Year with a law that established the workers’ “right to disconnect”. It requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer e-mails. It aims to ensure employees are fairly paid for work, and prevent burnout. This begs a deeper question. In this age of tech omnipresence, will we really need to work – much less, go to an office?

Digital Work

Digital technology makes it possible to slice our work like a pizza and farm out pieces to bidders across the world. Sites such as Upwork allow employers to post their assignments which a number of freelancers bid for. This model makes it possible for employers to cut down on the regular payroll and pay the freelancers on a piecemeal basis. From consultants to doctors everyone is available on a pay-per-use model. So who needs an office?

Anyone who works from home can tell you they work longer hours because they do not need to commute. They can focus more and the firm can save on costs.

Offices thriving

If offices are going out of fashion, why are the biggest digital companies building gigantic offices? Apple is building a $5-billion campus, with a 2.8 million sq. ft. main building that is designed like a spaceship. Google’s campus is legendary, with its free gourmet cafeterias, massage rooms, and nap pods.

Two years ago, Facebook moved into its 430,000 sq. ft., Frank Gehry-designed headquarters. It is now adding another 1.75 million sq. ft. to include a grocery store, a pharmacy and 1,500 housing units. Amazon is sweeping up office space in Seattle.

The tallest building in San Francisco has mindfulness areas on every floor inspired by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It is the headquarters of Salesforce.

Cause or effect

Microsoft has been experimenting with office design since 2010. It was driven by a change in the business. Software was no longer sold in a shrink-wrapped package that the customers installed. The market has shifted to software that is constantly updated as a service over the internet cloud. This needed frequent brainstorming and ideation. So it moved away from private offices to team-based spaces that had 16-14 engineers working together. It was not helpful. People started using noise cancellation headphones to isolate themselves. Now Microsoft has joined forces with Steelcase to explore how the workplace can drive creative performance by co-developing ‘Creative Spaces’ that marry tech and space.

Back to office

In 2013, when Yahoo! withdrew its work from home policy, there was an uproar. Marissa Mayer said in-person meetings boost the quality of decisions and ideas. IBM recently called 5,000 at-home employees to start coming into offices. Google encourages work from office though it allows work from home on a case-to-case basis. Research at MIT shows that employees who work remotely may end up getting “lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long”. Do people need to come to office to work, especially in a world where communication technology is becoming cheaper and plentiful? What if people managers are given extensive training in managing remote workers?

A case for office space

There are enough people who earn a living without stepping into an office. A wartime correspondent can get a Pulitzer without being in office for months. A job that can be done with no interdependencies can be done from anywhere. The gig economy is proof of that.

However, deeper bonds are formed between people who cross each other several times a day. In the late 1940s, psychologists Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter, and sociologist Kurt Back found that physical space was the key to friendship formation.

In a hyperconnected world, the notion of friendship is acquiring new shades. Online friendships are being formed on social media over shared interests. Whether these friends could work together on a day-to-day basis on tasks remains to be studied.

Steve Jobs designed offices at Pixar such that computer scientists, animators and editors were in separate buildings. Separating these groups, each with its own culture and approach to problem-solving, discouraged them from sharing ideas and solutions. He then moved everyone into a single building that was designed to encourage “casual collisions”. Most problems are getting so complex that they need interdisciplinary teams to work together. That is just what digital leaders are creating.

The new office design

The new word in office design is ABW or activity-based workplace design. Workspace no longer signals hierarchy, but is based on the nature of work. Innovation needs frequent work done in interdisciplinary teams in short bursts, enabling divergent perspectives. Then there is a phase when different ideas have to be combined and synthesised. These need isolated work spaces where someone can be left undisturbed. This part of the job can be still done at home. Offices must have huddle rooms for brainstorming. They also need private spaces for phone conversations, and some “unassigned” spaces for guests.

We need to use technology to stay in touch. We need to meet people in person to bond and feel emotionally connected. The offices of the digital behemoths now provide for both.

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My column for Business Line dt 12 Oct 2017

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