Ever since the advent of the information age, I have used this space to defend various institutions said to be doomed by the unrelenting onslaught of cyberspace. Print publications were doomed, they said; no, I responded, some would survive. Postage stamps would become obsolete, replaced by E-mail. No, I argued, handwritten notes arriving at the front door would become more special than ever.
It went on and on. The only institution I thought I would be glad to see go was the old-fashioned office. I was no fan of the office. I left my first fulltime job after college partly because I didn’t like the office and partly because I couldn’t stand the commute to the office. Soon after U.S. 1 started up in 1984 we discovered Gil Gordon, a consultant who specialized in advising companies on integrating telecommuting into their operations — and getting their workers out of the office. You go, Gil.
Eventually, of course, I became a prisoner of my own office. The darkest days (literally) of my life came when I was the single father of two elementary school boys and would wake up at some god-awful hour, rush out to the office for a few hours of work, and then race back to the house in time to wake them up, feed them, and get them off to school. Software like PC Anywhere began to help a little, but it was not until the advent of Windows XP and its remote desktop connection that I finally felt unchained from the office. I yearned for the day when I would never be there.
But that was then. At some point I realized the value of the office accruing to those who were there, and the cost incurred by those who were not. The recent merger of U.S. 1 and Community News Service has underscored the point. As the deal approached, I fretted about the possibility of having my comfortable commute (hell, I could probably do it in my sleep and perhaps even did do it in my sleep) be disrupted.
More recently I have realized that I can probably develop a new routine if I need to. More importantly, I have realized that all of us who work together at Community News Service — writers and editors and sales and production people who put out 10 different publications on three different publishing cycles — would probably work together even more efficiently if most of us were working in close proximity most of the time. Not all of us, all the time, but most of us, most of the time.
So here I am defending the good old-fashioned office, and predicting that it will not disappear from view as millions of workers sit at the kitchen table in their bunny slippers
The office came into the headlines within the last few weeks when Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, proclaimed that working from home and telecommuting into work was no longer the preferred way of honoring your work commitments at that high tech company. The Yahoo edict was widely criticized as running against the telecommuting tide and the realities of the modern-day workforce. Managers such as Mayer would be missing out on a substantial and highly productive component of the workforce by their rigid policies.
But other companies, even if they are not demanding that their workers arrive bright and cheerful at the office every day, are nevertheless going to great lengths to entice them to do so. That approach was documented just a few weeks ago, when the New York Times ran a feature story on the many lures of the new offices of Google’s Manhattan outpost. “A Workplace for Google’s Staff to Play In,” read the headline above the story in the March 16 Times.
The innovation in office design is the replacement of the cubicle with the open floor space model — workers arranging themselves in clusters or by themselves, or in some mixture of both, as their personal style and collective needs suggest. In the case of Google at its east coast location in a former Port Authority shipping center in Chelsea, workers even get to design their own work stations, using pieces that the New York Times described in admiring tones as “oversize Tinker Toys.”
In that article, the Times quoted Ben Waber, a 29-year-old Ph.D. from MIT who has written a book called “People Analytics” and has a Boston-based company called Sociometric Solutions. “Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”
We have seen this before in the greater Princeton business community. When the old PA Technology building rose on Princeton-Hightstown Road, it resembled a ship with rigging floating in the sky above the hull. In fact, the office’s roof and mechanical systems were suspended from that rigging, so that the floor space below could be uninterrupted by support columns. As I recall the architect saying, he wanted to encourage people bumping into each other in the open spaces, with the bumping leading to intellectual interaction, as well.
As we reported last month in U.S. 1, the spartan, industrial chic interior of Tigerlabs, the incubator for high tech companies on Nassau Street within a block of the Princeton University Engineering Quadrangle, is a similar space. The young entrepreneurs can gather in one area to hover over their computer screens, and then move to another to blow off steam playing ping pong.
Within the last week, we were approached by the EFK Group, headquartered in a refurbished industrial building in Trenton, about possibly doing a story on that operation.
The big commercial real estate interests are beginning to take notice of the demand of young office workers, in particular, for office spaces that are totally unlike the clean-cut cubicles and corner offices that their parents toiled in. While the parents felt comfortable in the suburban settings that have housed these office parks, the children clamor for urban settings, where the amenities might include — as they do at Tigerlabs on Nassau Street — a blue collar bar and a hoagie place.
At a conference last month in New Brunswick, Jim Hughes of Rutgers’ Bloustein School talked about how the state needs to “adapt to a new demographically inspired geographic reality.”
Said Hughes: “The 1980s saw an office building boom that became the nation’s cutting-edge growth model with its development along auto-dependent corridors,” Hughes explained. “In 1989, the office building boom turned to bust, and much of New Jersey’s office market was set in concrete. The Internet came next, fostering a dramatic change in companies’ business plans, including worker displacement and a need to upgrade office building infrastructure. By 2007 a new era dawned, with iPads, tablets, and iPhones unshackling workers, who were no longer geography or cubicle-tied.”
All that sounds like the death knell for the corporate office. Possibly. But my bet is that it’s the death knell for the old-fashioned office, and an opportunity to reconfigure how people come together in a common space, but not eliminate that common space. If you think I’m crazy, let me know. I’m easy to reach — you can usually find me at the office.