Where Have All the People Gone? Part I

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Bob Fox
Bob Foxhttps://www.fox-architects.com/
Bob is an industry leader and the founding partner at Fox Architects in Washington DC, celebrating 20 years of design professionals working together to reshape the office and work environment. Bob also publishes Work Design Magazine, which, with its thousands of global subscribers, is the premier online publication dedicated to workplace strategy, information, and resources. Bob earned his B.A. in Architecture from Temple University in Philadelphia. When he’s not innovating new concepts for the workplace, Bob leads a competitive sailing team on his 44-foot race boat, “Sly.” He’s been racing offshore for almost 20 years, sailing more than 30 thousand nautical miles of open ocean. Bob lives in the Washington DC area with his wife, son, and three daughters. He remains focused on our changing work environments, and the state of workplace design today, and looking ahead to dynamic shifts that are forthcoming.

Technology has had a big impact on how we work.  As few as 5 years ago, there were still people working very closely together in shared office spaces. They depended on accessing the same information at the same time — which was probably on a server in some closet that was in the office.

But if you’re like most office workers, then you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot fewer people around the office these days. In fact, studies show that private offices are vacant as much as 60 percent of the time.

Where is everyone?

Where has everyone gone?  Has technology truly influenced this space-less shift?

Not entirely. The cultural aspects of companies have to evolve. Companies recognized early that they could achieve significant savings given advances in technology. But the biggest challenges to achieving those benefits were the traditions about the office that we hold most dear. Those traditions are steeped in cultural values that surround the privacy and ownership of office space.

Case-in-point: I bet many of you reading this article are probably sitting in “your” office. You’ve built a career in a workplace where pride and status often are based on where you sit.

Empty Desk

In our offices and workspaces, we have put on display much of ourselves, our families, and our friends. We invite co-workers into “our” space. We organize “our” space. We own it and can manipulate it for whatever we want.

However, the influx of a new generation without traditional workplace ideals are ushering in distributed workplaces and telecommuting. They don’t care for “my” office. They want flexibility. And, having grown up with technology that offers such an ideal, who can blame them?

The massive influence of wireless and the cloud.

Aside from the generational changes, another massive influencer is the advent of wireless. The moment we no longer had to plug into a network to do our jobs, we were free to move about the office without cables as anchors.

Compounding the wireless influence was its quick transition into the home environment. The systems required to work from home were reasonably inexpensive and easy to install – after all, you didn’t to run wires to each location, and now you could sit on your sofa to work while the football game played in the background.

Cafe Work

Wireless then started popping up everywhere, like cafes and other places that were conducive to meeting, working, and hanging out to take a break. It was pretty easy, all you needed was a laptop with a wireless connection – they were pretty cheap. Businesses took advance of this by offering free wireless access — the more people who could gather for extended periods of time for working, the more people to become patrons.

As wireless networks advanced, so did data access. From VPN to Dropbox, people today can work whenever from wherever — and without needing a computer physically located in the office.

As I’ve already eluded to, another massive shift in our workplace attendance has been influenced by the “Cloud.”

The “Cloud”

The cloud basically moved all of our files to a central place accessible from any phone, any laptop, any computer … from any location at any time. You could collaborate with anyone. The cloud is everywhere, easy and convenient, and essentially on demand. That was huge!

Now we can easily work anywhere, anytime, anyplace, with anyone, on anything.  That shift to a more ubiquitous and simple way of working changed the way we work and the physical environment necessary to support us now and forever.

Try and comprehend the impact that has on the physical work environment. You can meet anywhere: your client’s office, your home, the train, the park, a coffee shop, even on an airplane at 35,000 feet. I think you get my drift.

Technology’s impact on work itself.

Consider how much information is flowing through your office and the speed at which it flows. You have immediate access to information, research, presentation, consultants and experts. Then you have to be able to sort through it and mine what is useful and contributes to the task at hand and what information is superfluous and a waste of time.  The flow and speed of that information is increasing exponentially.

Group Think

I frequently hear the analogy that technology today is like “drinking from a fire hose,” and it is. Being able to access all of the data available to us, comprehend it, sort it, and utilize it is a necessary skill and talent.

Indeed, this skill has become a competitive advantage for people and organizations willing to make technology investments in the workplace — after all, creating an immersive environment is more likely to attract the young talent who is capable of leading our next generation of innovation.

The changing face of the workplace.

Given these shifts in culture and technology, management at traditional companies was suddenly perplexed with new organizational and operational issues that did not exist before.

New workplace policy issues erupted; new ideas on how to work were developing rapidly.

Real-time Interaction

Today, organizations are connecting with strategic partners to build the links to the information necessary to excel in their respective fields. Real-time interaction is becoming the norm. Tools that speed up that process will become an increasingly important part of the workplace.

As designers, we are already seeing multiple monitors on work stations. Furniture companies have been designing workstations that can accommodate up to as many as 8 monitors per individual workstation.

Multiple Monitors

This increased speed of technology and communication will continue into conference rooms, collaborative work area, across multiple locations and in our homes. People will need to access more and more information more rapidly.

In short, the workplace still is responding to these monumental changes.


In Part II of this series to be published in our February issue, I’ll explore how the workplace has responded given these shifts in our cultural and technological underpinnings.

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