It’s a virtual world. What’s the point of an office?

Posted by Paul Haskins on 16/04/2015

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Powerful collaborative technologies mean employees can connect to work with ease almost anywhere

The only thing required is an internet connection. So, with property costs ranking as one of most business’ largest overheads, what’s the point of an office?

We’re certainly eschewing the office in record numbers. In 2014, the number of UK workers based from home hit an impressive 4.2m in 2014 (that’s 13.9% of the total), according to the Office of National Statistics. That’s the highest figure since homeworking records began. 

But before we just pick up this corporate institution and consign it to the dust bin of history, it’s useful to pause for a moment and think about what an office really is. 

Technology | flexible working

The office defined

An office is where we have meetings, see our co-workers and generally get things done. And it’s worth hanging on to that last thought because, ultimately, an office is a tool for your business; it facilitates the things that need to happen to allow your business to succeed. 

Yes, there is a case for having an office to present a company’s ‘face’ to the world; a place to bring and impress customers or clients. Kudos for having smart offices counts in some sectors, and is all part of the sales pitch. But for most companies, the office’s key function, the chief thing it does, is to allow people to come together in the same physical space in order to interact.  

Perhaps then, the real question that any business needs to ask is, how can we make the best use of this collaborative space to help move our business forward?
The answer depends on the people involved. It’s about understanding what employees need in order to do their job, not just well, but with genuine enthusiasm, commitment and satisfaction. 

Interaction Insight | Modern Technology | What’s the point of an office?

The power of choice

Most workers value the ability to manage their own way of working and prioritise flexibility over salary. New technology certainly aids the modern worker through means of virtual connecting and communicating. 

Study after study has demonstrated that creating an engaged workforce means empowering employees to make decisions about how they work. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone wants to work from home, but most people do want flexibility.

This point was powerfully highlighted by PwC’s NextGen survey of 44,000 workers born between 1980 and 1995 (you guessed it, the millennials!). More than salary or any other financial reward, this group valued the ability to work flexibly and manage their way of working as a priority. And they are not alone. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 68% of the over 50s want access to flexible working too.

Technology is certainly moving in the right direction to accommodate the flexible worker with ever more ‘immersive’ forms of virtual connection being developed with every year that passes. 

By taking into account the hugely beneficial effects of allowing employees more autonomy over their ‘workstyle’, and the real role played by physical work place, the size, shape and type of office required begins to look very different to that demanded by the tradition of ‘presenteeism’.  But that tradition is a force that still can’t be underestimated. Let’s not forget that, 86% of us still work primarily in the office.

However, it’s hard to imagine that all these people are communicating and collaborating effectively simply by virtue of sitting close to one another. In fact, some studies have suggested that even a small distance can impact employee collaboration, with employees who sit just 200ft or more from each other having virtually no face-to-face chat. 

Real v perceived need

So ask yourself honestly: do we need office space, every day for every employee? Could less space, and a more fluid use of space, actually mean higher productivity (in the form of happier, remote staff)? Does everyone have access to the technology required to accommodate remote working? 

For many businesses, office space requirements could well be less than initially expected. And this opens the door to substantial cost savings; a Vodafone UK study recently found that UK plc could save around £34bn by freeing up office space and working more flexibly. 

Importantly though, most businesses will still have some requirement for space. Because some workers want to share space with colleagues for at least some of the time. For example, new employees or younger recruits will often want, and need, the kind of hands on support that really does require the presence of others. 

So, yes. Office space does have a point and that’s to facilitate business. Perhaps the ultimate question to ask is, how hard is your office space working to do its bit for your business?