Could the Office Become a Thing of the Past?

We live in an age of unprecedented communicative power. Technology has brought us all closer and there is no excuse for not keeping in touch. I speak to my friends daily through texts, Facebook, Twitter, email, Whatsapp, Skype, Snapchat. Sometimes, I even speak to them in person. Geographical location is no longer a barrier to communication, so when we already fire emails across the office, do we really need to be in the same room as our colleagues?

Most of what we do in the office can be done from anywhere: emails, phone calls, accessing documents and working on websites are all reliant only on having a phone and an internet connection. With Skype and other video software freely available, even a phone doesn't have to be a pre-requisite. Even meetings don't need to take place in boardrooms- plenty of tools exist for facilitating online meetings with webcams and shared documents. Replace the time and travel expenses of attending meetings with an hour at your computer and virtual meetings become an attractive option. 

Taking staff out of the office does however involve an element of trust- if I don't know where my staff are how do I know that they are working? However, many companies are now taking a more laissez-faire approach to staff management. Give an employee a task and a deadline, and whether he does it at his desk between 9 and 5 or at home at 4 in the morning, chances are he'll get it done. Arguably, for someone who is most creative at 8 at night, making them work at 9 in the morning may reduce productivity. 

As a world-leading hub of technology firms and startups, Silicon Valley is often the place to find pioneering working practices. Dell have recently favoured the work from home approach, with a target of 50% of their staff working from home, a big increase on their current 20%. The company estimates that allowing staff to work from home saved them around $14 million dollars last year, proving that it can not only reduce commuter traffic but save money. 

Dell are not the only technology company to have found success without relying entirely on staff being in the same location. Automattic, a startup responsible for building WordPress, have an office in San Francisco but nearly all of its staff work from home in locations around the world. They are even provided with a small sum to decorate their home office. This attitude allows them to recruit talent from anywhere without worrying about commutes or office politics. The money saved on office space allows Automattic to fund travel for staff to meet anywhere in the world, an incentive that keeps employees motivated and contributes to the company being a successful and growing one. 

Freedom from the restraints of an office can also create a much more productive working environment. If you are not in an office you can choose what to wear, what music to listen to, when to have lunch and which colleagues to speak to- no more distractions from colleagues' endless phone calls or inane chats around the kettle. Some might suggest that working from home is too full of distractions, but given incentive and reward employees should have the motivation to work from anywhere. To quote an anonymous friend: " I actually do more when I work from home. When I sit at my desk it feels like just making the effort to come into the office is enough to merit slacking off a bit. I feel far guiltier browsing the internet at home."

Contrary to the likes of Dell and Automattic, fellow Silicon Valley company Yahoo did not see the above as reasons to promote working remotely. This year they informed all staff that working from home was no longer an option. Silicon Valley stalwarts Google and Facebook are also more inclined to encourage staff to come into the office. Given that they have created famously luxurious and relaxed workplaces, this may not be too difficult. Time will tell if promoting remote working or making an enjoyable working environment is the best way forward but keeping an eye on Silicon Valley's companies and their respective methods should give us some clues. 

Ridding the world of offices is of course not a unanimously plausible solution. (Although tearing down unsightly office blocks would improve the skyline of many cities.) The need to provide face to face customer service and to get an instant, in-person response from a colleague may take a while to be replaced by virtual equivalents. As innately social creatures, our need to interact with others is also yet to be replaced fully by virtual means. Even if you can't stand your colleagues, human interaction is a vital part of life. If the next generation of office workers never actually meet their colleagues how would they cope at the Christmas party? 

So although it's not quite time for a work-from-home revolution, perhaps business leaders need to think a little more about removing the restraints of four office walls and 9-5 hours?