Published April 24, 1998 in the DENVER BUSINESS JOURNAL
Technology Has Forever Changed Offices
by Warren Kieding
TOMORROW'S OFFICE MAY BE SOMEONE'S basement spare room. Or it may be at somebody else’s desk with somebody else’s files. Or it could just be one of those ubiquitous cubes, the mobile homes of today's office landscape. In truth, the office of the future is here today. Yesterday's drywalled private office is being increasingly displaced by telecommuting, hoteling and cubicles to meet the economies and fluidity of today's business.
Today's telecommuting is defined by doing work almost anywhere outside the office on computers and sending the data in by modem. Telecommuting is one means by which workplace skill shortages may be filled by "commuter challenged" groups like working parents, the semi-retired and disabled for whom business hours travel is particularly difficult. Through telecommuting, companies may now better service customers while remaining connected to and interactive with, the people working with customers in the field. And the real estate cost of supporting the telecommuter is virtually free.
Telecommuting isn't for everyone. In reality, telecommuting is best suited for those who primarily do individual work, such as programming, analyzing, word and data processing. Management’s challenge is to develop successful methods of overseeing the new virtual office worker. The rewards for the telecommuting virtual employee are obvious, and the economies for the employer are considerable. In simple math, a typical staff position may require in the neighborhood of 200 square feet of rentable space per person. 200 square feet multiplied by $20 per square foot amounts to a clear savings of $4,000 per person per year, or a $20,000 savings over the course of the standard five year office lease for each telecommuter.
The navy term for two sailors assigned to different shifts sharing a bunk is "hot sheeting". In the office, the term for two or more workers with different office schedules sharing the same desk or workstation is "hoteling," or "hot desking." Hoteling, the more recognizable term, refers to workers who make "reservations" to share assigned desk space. Following the navy motif, hot desking refers to unassigned shared space, sort of catch-as-catch-can space sharing. Some of the earliest applications of hoteling were the reservation, telemarketing, call and customer service centers, which generally operate on multiple, short six-hour shifts. This type of shift work allows for two to three or more employees to share the same desk. So other than the need to provide the facilities for peak operations, the economy in lease space and equipment is a multiple of the number of shifts. Denver, in particular, has become a center for these operations because of its central location between the coasts.
Initially, office planning for hoteling operations consisted of providing additional mail slots, file drawers and printer "docking" stations. As hoteling becomes more common in the workplace, office technology, furniture and facilities have adapted to meet the growing need.
A few recent innovations include:
Local area cordless phone systems fully integrated into the office communications systems. The hoteling employee checks one out and can sit at any open desk to directly receive incoming calls.
Laptop computer technology. You bring your computer in, plug it in to the network at any open worksurface and pack it away when you "check out."
Furniture systems workstations dotted the office landscape as early as thirty years ago. The "action office" of the 1960's was intended to be a flexible, moveable means of adapting the office to changing business operations. These cubicles, or "cubies," were intended to be assembled, disassembled and reconfigured in response to changing business needs.
The prevailing practice in office planning today is to plan and plant workstations for the optimum density appropriate for operations. Like the mobile home park, the cubicle stays in place and the people move. The cubicle components and worksurfaces are then adjusted to fit the needs of the new occupant. With global competition and earnings pressures, the trend to economize space is universal. The Wall Street Journal in fact reports that over the past ten years, the average office density has been increased by 20% from 250 square feet to an average of 200 square feet per person.
The economies of workplace densification are clear. For office space renting at $20 per square foot, a fifty square foot space reduction delivers savings of $1000 per person per year. At that rate, you can pay for most workstations in just over three years and the rest is just profit.
Finally, for those in management who still desperately cling to their mahogany offices, there is the "super-cube." These demountable full-height walls are fully compatible with all furniture systems, even those with finished wood veneer worksurfaces. They offer spatial efficiency, adaptability, mobility and economy comparable to workstations without the disruption and dust inherent in tampering with conventional fixed walls. Stepping into the future of the office is understanding today’s applications of telecommuting, hoteling and cubicles. Adapting to this world of ever-increasing change and economic pressure can spell the difference between success and failure in modern office operations.