Contract - Essay from the Past: Is the Office Really Necessary?

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Essay from the Past: Is the Office Really Necessary?

05 May, 2010

-By Duncan B. Sutherland Jr.


There is a revolution brewing in the office—a revolution, which, as a totally unintended side effect, may well sound the death knell for the design profession as we know it today. The revolution doesn’t have anything to do with sophisticated computer-based local area networks, state-of-the-art systems furniture, or even “new approaches” to office layout. Rather, its seeds are sown in a much more fundamental question: do we even need offices at all?

This may sound like a rhetorical (or even silly) question. After all, if we didn’t have offices, where would we put millions of American office workers? What would we do with billions of square feet of existing office space? What would happen to the thousands upon thousands of people whose livelihood depends on the continuing existence of the office—from custodians to leasing agents? What would magazines like Contract find to write about? Perhaps most important, what would office designers design?

As important as these questions might be to each of us as individuals, they ignore a basic point: the “modern office” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its foundations were laid down only a little more than 100 years ago, during the period of dramatic social, economic, and technological upheaval historian Arnold Toynbee characterized as the “industrial revolution.” As a result, the modern office is a product of a “mechanized” way of thinking about the relationships between labor, management, and machines. Perhaps even more significant, the form and function of the modern office is a product of a set of technological constraints—in particular, in the areas of communication and transportation—that existed in the 1800s and early 1900s but that no longer holds true today.

Whether we are simply experiencing the rolling after-shocks of Toynbee’s revolution…or whether we are, indeed, in the midst of yet another and perhaps even more profound revolution…there is no question that we are experiencing an era of unprecedented social, economic and technological change. Thus, should we really expect that the white-collar workplace that will eventually emerge from what we might characterize (for lack of a better term) as the officing revolution will bear even a passing resemblance to its industrial predecessor?...Of course, the logical follow-up question is a bit more difficult:

If the office of tomorrow won’t look like the office of today, what will it look like?

Technomania as the ‘magic bean’

In recent years, corporate America’s strategies to improve office productivity have been largely driven by management’s knowledge about the nature of the office and of office work—specifically, that the office is some kind of “information factory.” The result has been that management has come to view massive infusions of technology as the “magic bean” that will once and for all turn the nation’s white-collar productivity cow into a goose that lays golden eggs.

What makes all of this even more interesting, of course, is the fact that, in spite of a decade or more of investment in new technology of all kinds, office productivity may well be getting worse rather than better. Robert Solow, serving as vice chairman of an MIT blue ribbon panel on American productivity, summed up the situation this way: “If someone landed from Mars or, more to the point, from Tokyo, he’d conclude that the computer has had essentially no impact on our white-collar productivity [Fortune, September 28, 1987, p. 62].” Anecdotal evidence garnered from survey research conducted by BOSTI, Steelcase, and others notwithstanding, the same can certainly be said for systems furniture and “new” approaches to office design.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that people shouldn’t expect to work in safe, supportive environments,
or that they won’t be more satisfied—and perhaps even work a bit harder—if they have non-glare task lighting…, a pleasant view, an operable window, a closeable door, individualized control over air flow and temperature, more space to spread out, and an ergonomically designed chair.

However, this again misses the essential point. This is one of those all too frequent instances where corporate America and its designers, with all good intentions, are trying to solve the wrong problem.

The knowledge machine

Just as the sun looks as if it revolves around the earth, the office often looks like a factory. In fact, parts of some offices…even function like the “paper mills” that they really are. However, when it comes to what most of us think of as “office work”… we need something that will help us gain enough perspective to see the office for what it really is—how it really works.

 

We are all familiar with the concept of analogy—a form of logical inference in which it is assumed that if two things are alike in some respects, then they must be alike in other respects. Used properly, analogy can be a powerful problem solving tool. For example, the story is told that Henry Ford got the idea for the automobile assembly line by watching beef carcasses being pushed along an overhead rail in a meat packing plant while individual butchers performed specialized operations as each carcass passed by their work stations—just as “Model Ts” were later pushed from station to station along overhead rails in Ford’s first assembly plants. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it clearly illustrates the intellectual power of analogy.

Imperfectly drawn, however, analogies can be problematic and, when it comes to an issue as important as maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world, even downright dangerous. For example, with the development of robotics and concepts like computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), a traditional assembly line is probably the least cost-effective way to produce cars today. Nevertheless, breaking out of traditional ways of thinking about the process of building cars…continues to be on of the biggest competitive stumbling blocks facing American automobile manufacturers.

When it comes to addressing the “problem” of office productivity, exactly the same thing is happening today in the office….The office-as-information factory analogy has led management to adopt a mechanistic way of thinking about the office, both as a physical entity and as a process. Many companies even have gone so far as to try to measure “office productivity” in the same way it has historically been measured on the farm and in the factory—in terms of the efficiency with which inputs are converted into outputs—leading to such absurdities as multibillion dollar corporations worrying about counting the keystrokes of individual word processing operators.

It is true that offices, like factories, have floors, walls, and ceilings. But here the similarity ends. While we can talk about the “flow” of office work and the “productivity” of office workers, the office is not an “information factory.” In fact, the office is not a factory of any sort. This helps to explain why productivity improvement strategies that have worked so amazingly well in the fields and on the shop floor have largely failed to live up to management’s expectations when transferred into the office.

Clearly, we have lost sight of the purpose of the office….. The office wasn’t invented to fulfill some deeply felt social need…. The purpose of the office is not to produce what we normally think of as “information”—the memos, letters, management reports, etc., that pile up on our desks. Rather, it is to create knowledge, which allows us to get along in a hostile and (more often than not) contradictory world. This is the purpose of the human mind. As an extension of the human mind, it is also the purpose of the office.

The distinction between information and knowledge is not a trivial one—something that Francis Bacon knew very well when he observed, in Meditationes Sacrae (1957), that “knowledge is power.” Information, rather than being something  tangible that can be “managed,” is simply what chemists would call an “intermediate product” in the intellectual process we call information processing. It is an intellectual experience, based on the interpretation of sensory data (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), which answers some immediate question about the world we live in.

Our day-to-day survival as a species depends on how efficiently we process data from the environment. Likewise, it is in the management of the process of information processing—both at the individual level and, equally important, at the organizational level—that companies will find the key to increased competitiveness, not in the management of artifacts of the process.

Nevertheless, it is in the management of artifacts that most companies are spending the bulk of their technology dollars today. However, in a world in which intellectual agility counts for much more than physical prowess, companies must learn to manage what is essentially an intellectual rather than a production process.

This will be a difficult challenge to meet. Not only will it require a totally different set of management skills than that which exists in today’s executive ranks…but it will very likely mean the demise of the office as we have come to know and love it. Why? Because, as companies are inextricably drawn into the vortex of what Harvard sociology professor David Bell has dubbed the “postindustrial” society, competitive pressures will force management to ask—and answer—what is perhaps the most difficult question of all: If we didn’t have offices as we know them today, what (if anything) would we invent? Perhaps needless to say, as the office goes, so goes office design.

The birth of the virtual office

For the first time in history, officing—undertaking the intellectual work that is necessary to meet a commonly agreed upon set of organizational goals and objectives—can take place with total independence of time and space, something that was impossible before the development of modern telecommunication and transportation technology.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that future generations of middle managers will find themselves working out of “electronic cottages” rather than traditional office buildings—although that possibility certainly exists. What it does mean, however, is that management can, if it chooses, begin to free itself from traditional concerns like constructing corporate headquarters buildings and focus, instead, on two much more critical issues:

• Managing organizational knowledge.
• Managing variables that impact the efficiency of organization-level information processing.

This, in turn, will require management to pay much more attention than it does today to the question of how and where people work best.

If our goal is to take fullest advantage of our intellectual resources…we can no longer afford to adopt a monolithic approach to the office. We can no longer afford to constrain our most valuable asset—the human mind—by force fitting it into what amounts to an anachronistic straightjacket called “the office,” no matter how pleasant and well-planned that office may be, and no matter how many design awards it may have won. We have to find ways to exploit the fact that not only do we often do our best intellectual work at strange times and in strange places (and sometimes even in strange company), but that the mind “works” 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for as long as we live. And herein lies both the risk—and the opportunity—for the design profession: management has no one else to turn to help them meet this challenge.

For years, the behavioral sciences have been viewed with skepticism (if not outright derision) by top management. Perhaps this skepticism is deserved, perhaps it is not. Nevertheless, the office—whatever form it eventually takes—has been and will forever remain a behavioral rather than a technical phenomenon. Thus, management will need designers who understand how to create and manage the creation of knowledge systems—information processing megasystems that are, themselves, comprised of individual information processing systems we call people. This will require:

• An in-depth understanding of the process of human information processing
and, of equal importance, an in-depth understanding of the role that technology
can and should play in this regard, whether we are talking about computers or
buildings—an expertise that doesn’t exist in most organizations today.

• An amalgam of what are now viewed as distinct disciplines—architecture
(and, in particular, interior architecture), the cognitive sciences, sociology,
information systems, and probably a number of others.

• The ability to design seamless infrastructures of technology (including, of
course, facilities) that support officing whenever, wherever, and in whatever
form it requires to be effective—at home, in the car, on an airplane, in a hotel,
or even in a “traditional” office setting.

Obviously, this is not something that today’s designers are well-prepared to do, even if they wanted to. However, it is an issue that will confront the design profession head-on in the not too distant future. Why? Because this is not only an American problem. The issue of increased office productivity—of intellectual competitiveness—is on the minds of management in virtually all industrialized countries (and even in some countries like China that although not full industrialized, are keeping a weather eye to the future).

As for the future of office design, the scenario cast here holds both risk and opportunity. The opportunity is evident. The risk, on the other hand, is that a totally new profession will emerge that will subsume much of what has traditionally been viewed as the purview of design.

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Throughout history, lots of professions have come and gone, more often than not as a direct result of technological shifts like the one the world is now experiencing. And consider this: Japan has recently taken a keen interest in what they call “FM”—facility management. Only some Japanese companies have a rather interesting perspective on what this term encompasses—everything from the design of a corporate logo to the management of a corporate culture. How does that old saying go? “Forewarned is forearmed.”

Duncan Sutherland is chairman of the Sutherland Group, Inc., Socio + Technical  Systems Consultants, Reston, Va. He consults with corporations and governments in the United States and abroad on issues related to technology strategy and the development of innovative, technologically enabled approaches to improved office productivity. Prior to that, he was a vice president and director of officing for Houston-based CRS Sirrine Inc., where he continues as officing consultant. He is the author of a Japanese book on the future of the office, Officing: Bringing Amenities and Intelligence to Knowledge Work.


Essay from the Past: Is the Office Really Necessary?

05 May, 2010


There is a revolution brewing in the office—a revolution, which, as a totally unintended side effect, may well sound the death knell for the design profession as we know it today. The revolution doesn’t have anything to do with sophisticated computer-based local area networks, state-of-the-art systems furniture, or even “new approaches” to office layout. Rather, its seeds are sown in a much more fundamental question: do we even need offices at all?

This may sound like a rhetorical (or even silly) question. After all, if we didn’t have offices, where would we put millions of American office workers? What would we do with billions of square feet of existing office space? What would happen to the thousands upon thousands of people whose livelihood depends on the continuing existence of the office—from custodians to leasing agents? What would magazines like Contract find to write about? Perhaps most important, what would office designers design?

As important as these questions might be to each of us as individuals, they ignore a basic point: the “modern office” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its foundations were laid down only a little more than 100 years ago, during the period of dramatic social, economic, and technological upheaval historian Arnold Toynbee characterized as the “industrial revolution.” As a result, the modern office is a product of a “mechanized” way of thinking about the relationships between labor, management, and machines. Perhaps even more significant, the form and function of the modern office is a product of a set of technological constraints—in particular, in the areas of communication and transportation—that existed in the 1800s and early 1900s but that no longer holds true today.

Whether we are simply experiencing the rolling after-shocks of Toynbee’s revolution…or whether we are, indeed, in the midst of yet another and perhaps even more profound revolution…there is no question that we are experiencing an era of unprecedented social, economic and technological change. Thus, should we really expect that the white-collar workplace that will eventually emerge from what we might characterize (for lack of a better term) as the officing revolution will bear even a passing resemblance to its industrial predecessor?...Of course, the logical follow-up question is a bit more difficult:

If the office of tomorrow won’t look like the office of today, what will it look like?

Technomania as the ‘magic bean’

In recent years, corporate America’s strategies to improve office productivity have been largely driven by management’s knowledge about the nature of the office and of office work—specifically, that the office is some kind of “information factory.” The result has been that management has come to view massive infusions of technology as the “magic bean” that will once and for all turn the nation’s white-collar productivity cow into a goose that lays golden eggs.

What makes all of this even more interesting, of course, is the fact that, in spite of a decade or more of investment in new technology of all kinds, office productivity may well be getting worse rather than better. Robert Solow, serving as vice chairman of an MIT blue ribbon panel on American productivity, summed up the situation this way: “If someone landed from Mars or, more to the point, from Tokyo, he’d conclude that the computer has had essentially no impact on our white-collar productivity [Fortune, September 28, 1987, p. 62].” Anecdotal evidence garnered from survey research conducted by BOSTI, Steelcase, and others notwithstanding, the same can certainly be said for systems furniture and “new” approaches to office design.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that people shouldn’t expect to work in safe, supportive environments,
or that they won’t be more satisfied—and perhaps even work a bit harder—if they have non-glare task lighting…, a pleasant view, an operable window, a closeable door, individualized control over air flow and temperature, more space to spread out, and an ergonomically designed chair.

However, this again misses the essential point. This is one of those all too frequent instances where corporate America and its designers, with all good intentions, are trying to solve the wrong problem.

The knowledge machine

Just as the sun looks as if it revolves around the earth, the office often looks like a factory. In fact, parts of some offices…even function like the “paper mills” that they really are. However, when it comes to what most of us think of as “office work”… we need something that will help us gain enough perspective to see the office for what it really is—how it really works.

 

We are all familiar with the concept of analogy—a form of logical inference in which it is assumed that if two things are alike in some respects, then they must be alike in other respects. Used properly, analogy can be a powerful problem solving tool. For example, the story is told that Henry Ford got the idea for the automobile assembly line by watching beef carcasses being pushed along an overhead rail in a meat packing plant while individual butchers performed specialized operations as each carcass passed by their work stations—just as “Model Ts” were later pushed from station to station along overhead rails in Ford’s first assembly plants. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it clearly illustrates the intellectual power of analogy.

Imperfectly drawn, however, analogies can be problematic and, when it comes to an issue as important as maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world, even downright dangerous. For example, with the development of robotics and concepts like computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), a traditional assembly line is probably the least cost-effective way to produce cars today. Nevertheless, breaking out of traditional ways of thinking about the process of building cars…continues to be on of the biggest competitive stumbling blocks facing American automobile manufacturers.

When it comes to addressing the “problem” of office productivity, exactly the same thing is happening today in the office….The office-as-information factory analogy has led management to adopt a mechanistic way of thinking about the office, both as a physical entity and as a process. Many companies even have gone so far as to try to measure “office productivity” in the same way it has historically been measured on the farm and in the factory—in terms of the efficiency with which inputs are converted into outputs—leading to such absurdities as multibillion dollar corporations worrying about counting the keystrokes of individual word processing operators.

It is true that offices, like factories, have floors, walls, and ceilings. But here the similarity ends. While we can talk about the “flow” of office work and the “productivity” of office workers, the office is not an “information factory.” In fact, the office is not a factory of any sort. This helps to explain why productivity improvement strategies that have worked so amazingly well in the fields and on the shop floor have largely failed to live up to management’s expectations when transferred into the office.

Clearly, we have lost sight of the purpose of the office….. The office wasn’t invented to fulfill some deeply felt social need…. The purpose of the office is not to produce what we normally think of as “information”—the memos, letters, management reports, etc., that pile up on our desks. Rather, it is to create knowledge, which allows us to get along in a hostile and (more often than not) contradictory world. This is the purpose of the human mind. As an extension of the human mind, it is also the purpose of the office.

The distinction between information and knowledge is not a trivial one—something that Francis Bacon knew very well when he observed, in Meditationes Sacrae (1957), that “knowledge is power.” Information, rather than being something  tangible that can be “managed,” is simply what chemists would call an “intermediate product” in the intellectual process we call information processing. It is an intellectual experience, based on the interpretation of sensory data (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), which answers some immediate question about the world we live in.

Our day-to-day survival as a species depends on how efficiently we process data from the environment. Likewise, it is in the management of the process of information processing—both at the individual level and, equally important, at the organizational level—that companies will find the key to increased competitiveness, not in the management of artifacts of the process.

Nevertheless, it is in the management of artifacts that most companies are spending the bulk of their technology dollars today. However, in a world in which intellectual agility counts for much more than physical prowess, companies must learn to manage what is essentially an intellectual rather than a production process.

This will be a difficult challenge to meet. Not only will it require a totally different set of management skills than that which exists in today’s executive ranks…but it will very likely mean the demise of the office as we have come to know and love it. Why? Because, as companies are inextricably drawn into the vortex of what Harvard sociology professor David Bell has dubbed the “postindustrial” society, competitive pressures will force management to ask—and answer—what is perhaps the most difficult question of all: If we didn’t have offices as we know them today, what (if anything) would we invent? Perhaps needless to say, as the office goes, so goes office design.

The birth of the virtual office

For the first time in history, officing—undertaking the intellectual work that is necessary to meet a commonly agreed upon set of organizational goals and objectives—can take place with total independence of time and space, something that was impossible before the development of modern telecommunication and transportation technology.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that future generations of middle managers will find themselves working out of “electronic cottages” rather than traditional office buildings—although that possibility certainly exists. What it does mean, however, is that management can, if it chooses, begin to free itself from traditional concerns like constructing corporate headquarters buildings and focus, instead, on two much more critical issues:

• Managing organizational knowledge.
• Managing variables that impact the efficiency of organization-level information processing.

This, in turn, will require management to pay much more attention than it does today to the question of how and where people work best.

If our goal is to take fullest advantage of our intellectual resources…we can no longer afford to adopt a monolithic approach to the office. We can no longer afford to constrain our most valuable asset—the human mind—by force fitting it into what amounts to an anachronistic straightjacket called “the office,” no matter how pleasant and well-planned that office may be, and no matter how many design awards it may have won. We have to find ways to exploit the fact that not only do we often do our best intellectual work at strange times and in strange places (and sometimes even in strange company), but that the mind “works” 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for as long as we live. And herein lies both the risk—and the opportunity—for the design profession: management has no one else to turn to help them meet this challenge.

For years, the behavioral sciences have been viewed with skepticism (if not outright derision) by top management. Perhaps this skepticism is deserved, perhaps it is not. Nevertheless, the office—whatever form it eventually takes—has been and will forever remain a behavioral rather than a technical phenomenon. Thus, management will need designers who understand how to create and manage the creation of knowledge systems—information processing megasystems that are, themselves, comprised of individual information processing systems we call people. This will require:

• An in-depth understanding of the process of human information processing
and, of equal importance, an in-depth understanding of the role that technology
can and should play in this regard, whether we are talking about computers or
buildings—an expertise that doesn’t exist in most organizations today.

• An amalgam of what are now viewed as distinct disciplines—architecture
(and, in particular, interior architecture), the cognitive sciences, sociology,
information systems, and probably a number of others.

• The ability to design seamless infrastructures of technology (including, of
course, facilities) that support officing whenever, wherever, and in whatever
form it requires to be effective—at home, in the car, on an airplane, in a hotel,
or even in a “traditional” office setting.

Obviously, this is not something that today’s designers are well-prepared to do, even if they wanted to. However, it is an issue that will confront the design profession head-on in the not too distant future. Why? Because this is not only an American problem. The issue of increased office productivity—of intellectual competitiveness—is on the minds of management in virtually all industrialized countries (and even in some countries like China that although not full industrialized, are keeping a weather eye to the future).

As for the future of office design, the scenario cast here holds both risk and opportunity. The opportunity is evident. The risk, on the other hand, is that a totally new profession will emerge that will subsume much of what has traditionally been viewed as the purview of design.

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Throughout history, lots of professions have come and gone, more often than not as a direct result of technological shifts like the one the world is now experiencing. And consider this: Japan has recently taken a keen interest in what they call “FM”—facility management. Only some Japanese companies have a rather interesting perspective on what this term encompasses—everything from the design of a corporate logo to the management of a corporate culture. How does that old saying go? “Forewarned is forearmed.”

Duncan Sutherland is chairman of the Sutherland Group, Inc., Socio + Technical  Systems Consultants, Reston, Va. He consults with corporations and governments in the United States and abroad on issues related to technology strategy and the development of innovative, technologically enabled approaches to improved office productivity. Prior to that, he was a vice president and director of officing for Houston-based CRS Sirrine Inc., where he continues as officing consultant. He is the author of a Japanese book on the future of the office, Officing: Bringing Amenities and Intelligence to Knowledge Work.
 


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