What Is an Office?

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 1999

"The office of the future is not an office."  This was a recent pronouncement by someone whose business is making pronouncements.

I 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?

To 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.

"How do you deal with people?" I ask.  "They know where to find me," he replies.

"What about phone calls?" I persist.  "If it's important the librarian will get me," he explains.  "The librarians know me well."  (Well, obviously!)

"What about your personal things?"  "They're in my briefcase."  And so on.

I 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?

Sometimes 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.

So 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.

What 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.

However, 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 compute.

Earlier 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 up.

Perhaps, 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.

For 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.

Like 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, anyway.


Robert W. Lucky