Is an Office?
IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 1999
office of the future is not an office."
This was a recent pronouncement by someone whose business is making
don't know about this myself, but I've been worrying about it ever since I
discovered that a friend who heads a well known laboratory hasn't had an office
there for five years. When I have
visited, we've met in various conference rooms, and I have just assumed that he
had an opulent office somewhere nearby. But
it turns out that he has no office there whatsoever.
I've been thinking: does this set a bad example for the rest of us, or is
it a harbinger of the world to come?
add to my worry, this reminds me of another acquaintance who heads a research
lab and has no office either, but works from a table in the company library.
In some ways this appeals to me. There
is a quiet, companionable energy at a library table.
I've done some of my best work in such a setting.
But living there? I don't
know about that. Through the years
on occasional meetings I have prodded him about this existence.
do you deal with people?" I ask. "They
know where to find me," he replies.
about phone calls?" I persist. "If
it's important the librarian will get me," he explains.
"The librarians know me well."
about your personal things?" "They're
in my briefcase." And so on.
imagine coming in the morning to claim my usual place at the library table.
It will be unoccupied, because everyone knows that I live there.
I open my briefcase -- my office-in-a-box -- and extract the family
picture, which I place on the table before me.
I open my laptop, and plug it in to the local area net connection
underneath the table. Around me are
quiet and thoughtfulness. Is this
corporate heaven, or have I become a recluse?
I walk down the aisles of the lab where I work and peer into offices.
Most are piled high with magazines, books, and papers.
Scrap papers, maybe. The
centerpiece of every office is a computer.
Sure, everyone has a desk, but they all seem non-functional.
I seldom see any bare real estate on the desktop. Since everyone now writes on the computer keyboard, the top
of the desk has become another storage space for forgotten documents that no one
ever files anymore. The desktop has
yielded to the maxim that every flat surface will collect junk until that
surface is no longer visible.
in the world of networks, laptops, cellular phones, email, and constant travel,
why do we need offices? I made a
little list of things. We need
workspace and physical support -- computers, telephones, and so forth.
No problem, these things are now in your briefcase.
We need an address and a telephone number.
Again, those are now portable. Our
email follows us, and the ever-growing footprint of cell phones now covers
continents. Sometimes we need
secretarial support, but most of us do this ourselves these days.
We need a place to host visitors. So
borrow a conference room.
about space for all those piles of magazines, books, and papers?
Increasingly, they have become piles of gigabytes.
They're now on our hard drives, on the server, on the net.
They have become spaceless. The
souvenirs and proofs of our intelligence and experience are no longer
ostentatiously visible to the visiting public.
all these physical things may not define the attributes of an office.
What about prestige?
Here we have the historical belief that size counts.
Have you ever seen a movie where the star worked in a cubicle?
They never make movies about people who work in cubicles.
Can you even imagine Michael Douglas, in his executive suit, inhabiting a
cubicle or explaining to the beautiful business woman that he has no office? I can't even draw the picture in my mind -- it doesn't
this year there was a popular television commercial based on the Dilbert cartoon
where the office automatically sensed your current prestige level in the company
and adapted the size of your cubicle accordingly.
The cartoon character was having trouble fitting in his office as it
shrank alarmingly. I heard of a
similar situation actually occurring in a company where, after the unpopular
promotion of a young supervisor, his subordinates arranged to move the walls of
his new office inwards a few inches each day.
At first he didn't notice. Then
he couldn't say anything about it, for fear of being thought paranoid.
Finally, only when his chair no longer fit in the office, the game was
though, in terms of prestige, having no office may be at the highest level.
Much better than having to apologize for your hovel, as so many people
are wont to do. It is my
observation that the world divides cleanly into two camps -- those who spend
almost all their workday in their offices, and those who are never in their
offices. For those jet-setters in the latter category, perhaps an
office is indeed an anachronism.
those people rooted to their desks, I have some sympathy for the idea of a
permanent office. I notice this
innate desire in my dogs. In every
house I have lived, and for every dog I have known, the dog adopts a place
in the house. The dog effectively
owns the whole house, yet invariably chooses to revert to his rest state in one
particular corner. Sometimes I have
a hard time understanding what is special about that place, but whatever it is,
the dog adopts it as home. As I
write this column, my dog is undoubtedly sitting at home in a curved antique
chair in the hallway. From this
chair, which is his adopted office, my dog can see out the windows on the side
of the front door. My dog has a
window office; he is no dummy, after all.
my dog, I think I need a place too. Sure,
it could even be a familiar library table.
Business mechanisms in the computer age may be portable, but I'm not
quite portable myself. The laptop computer is an important adjunct, but I don't live
in the briefcase myself. Not yet,