Should we be making arrangements to say our final farewells to the office? Not yet, according to a band of heavyweight executives from the British business world.
Chiefs from companies such as Nationwide building society, Regus and Channel 4 television recently took part in a roundtable hosted by The Guardian newspaper and conference call giants Powwownow to debate whether the growing application of remote working was killing off the traditional workplace.
The overarching sentiment was, as Oddbody Consulting managing director David D’Souza put it: “The office isn’t dead – it’s just becoming far more fluid.”
The necessity for an office space has gradually reduced over the years, with many workers now able to perform their jobs wherever they want, armed only with an internet connection and desktop PC, laptop or tablet. Employers have adapted, and now 52% allow remote or flexible working, according to a recent Powwownow survey of 2,000 professionals.
Although the benefits of getting to the grind outside the office were noted at the discussion, such as reducing costs for businesses and challenging the idea employees must be in the workplace as much as possible, so too were concerns the apparent trend toward allowing working from the home, park or coffee shop was happening simply because technology now allowed it.
A question of trust
“There shouldn’t be a technology-driven compulsion to work in a certain way,” said Jonathan Swan, policy and research officer for work-life balance organisation Working Families. And in exchange for more hours outside the office, the group said there was a risk flexible working could create mistrust if people couldn’t be seen doing their tasks.
Although the discussion chair, journalist Sue Littlemore, countered by asking if managers could be sure someone in an office was performing properly.
In fact, the idea of trust was a pivotal part of the conversation. PWN Training director Laurie Willis said remote working “has to involve good management and has to envelop trust over the whole organisation.” This is backed up by the aforementioned survey, where 22.5% of respondents said they believed good management ensured a flexible-working scheme was successful, whereas 24% regarded communication as most important.
Does this suggest that, should one or both not be in place, satellite working may actually make people less productive than they could be in the office, where information and direction should be easier to access?
An argument cropped up that could propose that killing off the office could actually mean the death of remote working as a more productive alternative to the workplace.
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Julie Kortens, Channel 4’s head of corporate services, made a case for working onsite, pointing out: “You need guidance as you’re developing.” She later added that young people both needed to feel a sense of belonging, and to understand the rules and boundaries between work and play before being given the responsibilities that come with remote working.
Although, maybe we shouldn’t be too dismissive. A video has been online for years that shows a snippet of a 1974 TV interview where science fiction author Arthur C Clarke successfully predicts the future. He hypothesises to the somewhat sceptical presenter that by 2001, businessmen will be able to do their work wherever they like away from the office using a console, as he put it, one much smaller than the room-sized computer the pair were standing next to.
As unlikely as it seemed then, he was right. And as improbable as it seems now, the office may one day cease to exist. But is it dead now? Not quite, it seems.