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Office space in the space age




Credit: slimmer_jimmer at flickr.com

I envisioned writing this article from my home office (read: bed), dressed in a nouveau-corporate outfit (read: adult onesie), my concentration enhanced by my own white noise machine (read: NetFlix) in the background.

As the cruel gods of fate, weather and London public transport would have it, I have been sitting in a stationary, unheated train for two hours. I embarked on what should have been a four-minute journey with high hopes and an element of smugness: having been caught out several times in the last week in the chaos that a snowflake brings to London, I checked and cross-referenced every transport website several times before stepping out into the freezing and dark early morning.

Getting to work

I made sure to catch the 07:08 train (one of the few which hadn’t been cancelled) and, after only one unexpected diversion and short delay (what’s half an hour on a Monday morning between frenemies?), I was almost at the finish line. Alas; people make plans and the aforementioned gods laugh.

As contrasting as the settings described in the previous two paragraphs may seem, they could not complement each other better in driving home the same point: future cities may not need office space. I would go as far as to say that not only is office space unnecessary, it is, in many cases, an inefficient and unproductive way of doing business.

At least office space as we know it, with its sprawling layers of open-planning, carpet tiles and bad coffee machines.

Enter a concept which mom-trepreneurs and practice-owning professionals have been exploiting for years: telecommuting. This is the rather archaic catchall term for the arrangement by which employees do not commute to a central place of work. Instead, they work from home, coffee shops, the train (in London), the beach (in Cape Town) or anywhere else where they have access to appropriate telecommunications technology.
Since moving to London last year, I have joined the 50% of workers in the UK (and almost 10% of Americans) who regularly work from home. This practice is endorsed by the directors of the five-person company for which I work; and utilising technology to add value to our clients is built into our philosophy.

This means that, should public transport be disrupted for any reason, or if there’s no particular need to see my colleagues in person that day, I can work from home and skip the three hours of daily commuting that London-living has imposed on my very spoilt South African system. With technology such as Skype, online meeting facilities and (insert some hi-tech term describing unlimited broadband) internet available cheaply and reliably, I could (and, believe me, I do) spend days on end never having to commute further than the distance between my bedroom and kitchen.

Saving on time and space

For an introverted actuary, this is paradise. I save on transport, do my bit for the planet, eliminate the temptation to buy takeaway lunches, minimise wear and tear on my fancy clothes, and can spend the hours gained getting more work done, getting more admin done, or just taking it easy. Best of all, I avoid awkward eye contact with fellow commuters and interaction with people in general.

Of course, this kind of lifestyle is not ideal for everyone, or anyone with a normal appetite for social interaction. Even I suffer from cabin fever now and then. But that’s the beauty of being a 21st century “nomad worker” (the telecommuting vocabulary is peppered with such colourful jargon): it’s a broad spectrum, with the happy, flexible medium being somewhere between total recluse and life-of-the-office-party.

In my case, this means still meeting clients face-to-face at their offices, and having the option to see my boss and colleagues at our offices whenever necessary or desired. For hipsters, it may mean sitting in Starbucks all day with their Macs, for hippies, a picnic basket and PC in Hyde Park. Whatever the office of the future may mean to employees, it probably means cost savings to employers, if done correctly. This, coupled with the increased productivity, creativity, and innovation that accompanies workers being set free, will, hopefully, create greater value to be passed on to consumers. And that, I believe, should be the overarching goal of any sustainable business.

The office of the future

So what will the office of the future look like? Many lines of work, such as farming, manufacturing, and construction simply cannot be done at home. Sectors such as retail and education can, conceivably, largely be moved online, but there will probably always be a demand for brick and mortar shops and schools. Even large financial institutions still need physical space to house powerful hardware. But what does an actuary know of these things? I can only really comment on the business I know, that is the knowledge economy.

People like me bade farewell to their offices to make way for cubicles years ago. Then cubicles melted into open-plan floors and hot desks. Now, some companies are renting space in hotels and underutilised offices as needed, instead of owning their own. Hotel chains like Marriott are coming on board, accommodating “co-working” and “community work club environments” so they are not just places to sleep, but to work, for professionals constantly on the go. Some teleworkers form local groups that gather at coffee shops and other locations to socialise, collaborate, or just reduce the isolation of working on their own, in events called ‘jellies’ (another great piece of jargon).

This trend is not likely to continue ad infinitum. Mark Gilbreath, founder and CEO of LiquidSpace, which co-ordinates “on demand” work spaces and meeting rooms nationwide, believes that there is no substitute for coming into headquarters. It’s just that the ideal location may change from suburban office parks to urban environments, and the convenience and glamour they bring. “Cities will become increasingly vibrant markets. The broad picture is you’re going to have a massive excess outside that urban core,” Gilbreath foresees.
In Cape Town, we are already seeing the consolidation, streamlining, and revival of existing and obsolete buildings in areas such as Woodstock, and renewed interest in places like The Hostel, or It’s a House, where a collaborative working space offers the flexibility that the modern day worker needs.

For now, and until cutting edge communications technology is ubiquitous in the city, however, it looks like traditional office real estate will still be relevant in the Mother City. But that’s ok – I’d choose a view of Table Mountain from my cubicle over the perk of being able to wear my pyjamas to work any day.

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Pamela Hellig

Proud Paarlite, Capetonian and South African on a London sojourn. Actuary by day, actuary by night, but a weekend epicurean through and through.