It’s a year of anniversaries of five. This month see five years of working under the banner of Stamp. This October will mark five squared years of me in full time work.
When I ventured into the world of office work in the autumn of 1993 it was a very different place to that that we see today.
At KPMG where I started my career in their internal IT group at the support gulag in Watford optimistically called the “Management Services Centre”, there were some people who worked in a mobile fashion. Back then few of them yet had mobile phones. Mobile data was a glint in the eye of researchers (we were still on analogue phones back then). There were many laptop users, and they would laboriously fire up 33kps modems to connect their heavy ThinkPads to the ccMail servers to download important missives, hoping that there weren’t too many massive attachments on the way (anything North of 10k was a pain).
The people putting up with all of this were on client sites. They might occasionally get to work in transit, but not for long because of, well, battery life. Power sockets on trains were exclusively for the use of the cleaning staff if they existed at all which they probably didn’t (power sockets or cleaning staff).
The office was a place where you went to work because it was really the only place you could practically work. The resources were there, the people were there, and because the resources were static so, predominantly, were the people. Experiments had taken place in alternative ways, but had mostly drowned in human factors reinforced by shonky technology.
Roll forward 25 years and all of a sudden, without us noticing, the world has been transformed. I write this on a pocket-sized, always connected supercomputer. I am heading for meetings in a range of locations. I operate a business that has no physical premises. I know many other businesses of varying scale that have dropped the office entirely. I know many more who’ve dropped the organisation, working instead in a series of loose collaborative teams.
Work now happens in the physical as well as the digital. Google Drive or Slack or Trello are more important workspaces for me than any physical location. The reason for being in the same place at the same time is to work with others doing the sort of activities that require interaction, physical props, and the subtle non-verbal communication that humans are so good at yet barely notice until it’s not there.
Why then do big organisation offices still look pretty much identical to those that I first encountered back in the early 1990s? The chairs might be slightly sleeker, the monitors LCD not CRT. But otherwise…
Habit, tradition, fear, a lack of thought? Probably all of the above. But it feels distinctly of that we design our workspaces today for with in splendid isolation when surely that’s the least valuable type of work to bring people together to perform? The patterns of how we design for work, as ever, lag the technical possibilities by decades.