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Why we’ll want to go back to the (digitally enriched) office

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee September 10, 2020
Do we need to rethink what the office is like to encourage a return to the workplace? Salesforce's Peter Coffee presents the case.

office workers

Amid the “reopening” talk, these days, of contact tracing and worker shift scheduling, isn’t there an existential question that first must be raised? Specifically, do we want to go back to the office?

In the wake of the pandemic lockdown, and its Zooming adoption of networked tools for remote work, it’s being widely said that “the office is dead”; more generally, that the world’s iconic cities are being perhaps irreversibly emptied. Is new digital capability and behavior driving a wedge of genuine difference between what’s happening this year, and our many earlier episodes of urban evacuation? A difference between what’s happening now, and what happened in 1665 when Isaac Newton fled the plague for a famously productive year of WFH? Or when millions were migrated out of London and other population centers to escape bombing attacks in 1939?

John Templeton is widely credited with saying, “The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘this time it’s different’” – but in a Financial Times webinar on May 12 of this year, I heard David Rubenstein of The Carlyle Group say that a major present-day mistake (being made by too many people) is failure to see that this time, “this time” is different. The difference that threatens cities (and their offices) today, argues James Altucher, is that “bandwidth got faster. And that's basically it… The Time Life building doesn't need to fill up again. Wall Street can now stretch across every street instead of just being one building in Manhattan. We are officially AB: ‘After Bandwidth’; until now, we were BB: Before Bandwidth. That's what is different.”

Does bandwidth abundance doom pandemic-emptied cities to a deflationary spiral of “no one wants to be there, because nobody’s there”? No places to eat, so no one looking for a place to have dinner, so no one seeing profit in (re-)opening an interesting restaurant? No expectation of tailored attire for the office, so no tailors? No one to see anyone’s arrival in an upscale automobile, so no parking valets or come-to-your-parking-garage car detailers? Are we entering a spiral descent that implodes the old-normal ecosystem, in which five service roles (ranging from lawyers to baristas) were supported by every information-value-creation job (ranging from stockbrokers and software designers to architects and fashion designers) whose high wages fueled a city? Or in the case of London, The City?


While many people exult in their personal savings of commute time and the other upsides of working from wherever, we’ll be prudent to recall the principle of "Chesterton's Fence" and review the reasons why offices were invented in the first place. As Chesterton admonished in 1929: before one tears something down, one should know what problem it was first built to solve. We didn't crawl up on the beaches and immediately build desks in groups with walls around them: someone apparently thought this a useful idea, and it's not like we went directly from hunter-gatherer to cubicle-dweller. Along the journey from primordial swamp to cubicle farm, the elites of the Roman Empire conducted business with tablet and stylus, perhaps in their homes and perhaps in the public square or marketplace.

If coffee had been a thing before the 15th century, and had come to Europe before the 17th, the Romans would probably have invented Starbucks – not built themselves office canteens. So: why offices ever, at all?

The first purpose-built office structures were probably early-1700s London workplaces for the Royal Navy and the East India Company. Those spaces were, it seems clear, created to bring people to paper. The growing complexity and data-intensiveness of business and government operations, combined with limited ability to share information in anything other than ink-on-paper formats, drove the creation of offices in the same way that the thermodynamics of steam power drove the creation of factories a century farther on: absent a distribution network, and a form of energy or of information that could be thus distributed, it was easier to move people than it was to move joules or move bits.

One could therefore argue that the first Industrial Revolution, the first leg of our relay race of massification and centralization of work at scale, fired its starting gun in an office building in 1726 rather than in Soho Foundry in 1795; that it first gained momentum on desktops, rather than on factory floors.

Inside the office building, though, architects and efficiency engineers faced a question: should workers have separate rooms, or was it better to have shared spaces? Initially, office planners turned their biases into floor plans: for example, a British government report in 1854 opined that "separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode." Class distinction? Moi?

As the workforce evolved, though, from order-followers to (human) computers and decision-makers, something more than gut feel was demanded: Frederick Taylor was happy to provide time-and-motion studies in the early 1900s that purported to show open-plan offices to be superior in maximizing productivity. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hawthorne studies would reveal that what actually maximizes productivity is more often people's awareness that their output is being measured – but during the span from 1940s to 1980s, open-plan offices that gradually grouped desks into pods, and then separated the desks with partitions, would nonetheless metastasize into what most people imagine today when they hear the word “office.”

Many people don't like that kind of office very much – and one could reasonably suspect that when people say they would rather work from home, they mean by comparison to the kind of office that doesn't work very well and (candidly) never has. This does not mean that offices are, as such, an inferior way to get things done. Arguments that led to bad offices—that people have to come to information, and that office space needs to be optimized to measure and control people as they use that information—may no longer hold sway; Chesterton’s question may seem to have been answered. A different perspective, though, may reveal a path that leads to reinventing the office rather than rubbishing the whole idea.

The new office

Suppose we were to re-imagine the purpose of the office, given today’s mobility of data and ubiquitous wireless connectivity, and supported by modern automation and analytics. When people are not “fettered to an office stool,” a digitally enriched shared workplace can provide:

  • Varied spaces for varied tasks: rooms of different size and arrangement that are optimized for meetings or classes, with or without remote participants, as well as other spaces meant to provide a psychological change from concentration to conversation. What 1920s planners would have called an overwhelming challenge of conflict avoidance—Frederick Taylor would never have imagined it possible—can now be addressed, with planning algorithms (you may, if you insist, call this “AI”) and chatbot notifications (“Your room will be available fifteen minutes earlier than expected. Reschedule for earlier start?”)
  • Ease of access to personal services: concierge desks facilitating dry cleaning, package shipping/receiving, grocery delivery and the like so that inefficient chore excursions don’t take up so much before- or after-work time and energy. Again, a fully connected city can make this much more cost-effective to provide, as “chore runners” can have their routes and timings optimized by knowledge of what’s needed – and what’s available – where and when.
  • Accelerated onboarding of new team members: coordination of brown-bag informal seminars, volunteering activities, and other community involvement and network-building opportunities. Calendar sharing, knowledge discovery tools, and learning frameworks like Salesforce Trailhead can make this more targeted and less time-consuming than the cumbersome and costly classroom-format training programs so little loved today.

To be quite clear, this is not about putting a digital garnish on the old goal of optimizing arrangement of desks to put the largest possible number of people closest to the largest possible volume of file cabinets. This is about designing an environment that makes people look forward to going to work in the morning, and supporting that environment with a digital platform like Salesforce that offers people confidence in their safety and provides power tools for managing their activities.

To see the bigger picture, this is about borrowing from what Mark Cuban said about his ownership of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team: “Everybody thinks that we are in the basketball business. We're in the business of creating unique experiences.” When someone (perhaps quite accurately) says, “But I’m more productive at home,” is the right measure of production being applied? To follow Cuban’s argument as a parallel, a person today can certainly watch the basketball game from home, sitting in a comfortable chair, with their favorite beer at hand and no line for the men's (or ladies') room. To get someone into the Mavericks’ arena, to spend more money while having objectively inferior access to the watching of the game, there had better be something else going on.

Let’s apply that thinking to the office: we will do well to decide that the office of tomorrow must be different in what it provides – not “better” or “worse,” not “more” or “less,” but different compared to what many people now believe (reasonably enough) is a superior productivity environment in the home.

Want to go to work?

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