The office is dead

Posted on Mon, 04/11/2016 - 11:44

I recently made a pass through historic downtown Altoona and I noticed how many buildings appeared to be empty. It actually occurred to me that my definition of infrastructure has shifted radically from the conventional infrastructure companies have adopted. The "office" is hardly a requirement for a majority of jobs.


I have now worked for two virtual companies for almost three years. Aside from the occasional happy hour, there is very little that I miss out on working virtually. Video conferencing software has been amazing (you can share your screen and co-work on items if needed). Slack has enabled very effective real-time communication among team members. Memes and Giphy enables a virtual sense of humor. And, of course, the work itself is all virtual, using Google Docs, GitHub, and a server infrastructure managed "remotely". Heck, even our administrative and sales staff work remotely. The real question is, why do you need an office?   


I thought of some reasons:

  1. Your business has a bunch of equipment you need to produce a product (like a brewery, servers, or machinery)
  2. Your business brings people into your location (like a bank, gym, hotel, hospital, mechanic, or restaurant)
  3. Your business has a storefront (like a convenience or grocery store)

This fits a model of services needed for the local population. It certainly doesn't fit into the conventional "desk job".


Regardless, the traditional office seems to be falling by the wayside (or it should be). A lot of service industries to go to their customers (social services, electricians, plumbers, sales, etc). Yet, most of those industries still have brick and mortar locations. I'm shocked these have not been transformed yet, as a location is a substantial expense to maintain. It can even be a liability for your employees and your customers. 


Where it gets ridiculous is when companies refuse to acknowledge the efficacy of working virtually. When I was in higher education, there was almost a staunch rejection of virtual collaboration tools, a sense of "equality" over rationality (not all employees can work virtually), and complete ignorance to the evolving world. Dorms continued to be built as enrollment continued to rise. In-house infrastructure continued to scale (in lieu of virtually-managed cloud computing or third-party services that were far more competitive and cost effective). And, sadly, dinosaur staff that "walked to school uphill both ways in three feet of snow" that hold onto traditional mindsets of what an office should be. The end result yields lackluster services, wasting of resources, and the inability to recruit the best staff that are expecting to not only work virtually, but use the best technology that will enhance their skills (not promote atrophy). Maybe tuition costs and requests for funding would go down if higher education itself broadened their horizons (most of which they promote through research and educational outreach). Apparently, there is an inclination to ask for more money than to make sure the money they have is spent most effectively.


I would love to see downtown Altoona morph into a model citizen for virtual enablement. I think it's just a matter of time until businesses are forced to do this. It's clear that it's a leg up for competition: not only is it a huge cost savings, but employees benefit (seriously, no commuting!). I think existing building infrastructures will turn more into temporal work spaces or be used to promote innovation in local services. We shall see what the future holds!