Since 2005, the ratio of people working from home has grown by 103%.
It’s no surprise.
The Internet is making communication a breeze and families are increasingly splitting household duties down the center, demanding both parents adopt flexible schedules.
But one designer is sceptical the physical office is in any danger, as a well-designed meeting space offers something telepresence never can.
“Physical place is the heart of culture,” Joseph White, director of workplace strategy, design, and management at furniture giant Herman Miller, tells Tech Insider. “If you don’t have a place for the culture of your organisation to live, it can very easily drift away and vanish.”
While many American offices are still pretty lousy at organising their physical spaces, White argues that having a space at all is still requisite for creating high-quality collaborative work — even in today’s digital era.
That’s because physical spaces can create random interactions between people, sparking discussions that lead to new ideas. The phenomenon is based urban planning’s notion of “nodes.”
In a city, people move in all different directions. Sometimes their paths intersect — at crosswalks, at a local Starbucks. These intersections are nodes, and they are just as important for creating vibrant cities as they are for creating lively offices.
Steve Jobs famously (perhaps infamously) installed Pixar’s bathrooms in the exact center of campus, forcing people — even disgruntled mothers-to-be, until they protested — to walk up to 15 minutes to use the facilities. The goal was to stimulate conversation between people who normally would never talk.
For White, a well-functioning node doesn’t need to be nearly as extreme.
“Maybe there’s an area that has softer seating that supports light work and dialogue,” he says. “And it’s also a place for people to touch down as they’re moving from one place to another.”
While videochatting services like Skype and Google Hangout make planned encounters much easier, the element of randomness is unique to physical proximity.
“The role of technology in the workplace is always going to be changing,” White says. But the value of face-to-face interaction, in real-time, without a screen between each party, can’t be overstated.
In 2008, researchers used electronic badges to assess the impact of face-to-face meetings on employees’ productivity. They discovered the exact kind of water-cooler chitchat White pushes for ended up producing better results. People were also more productive when they interacted with key members of their team, particularly in the brainstorming and exploration stages.
That’s not to say coming into the office is necessary all the time.
“There comes a point when you know what you need to do, and you just have to get it done,” Lynn Wu, lead author of the 2008 study once said. “At that point, it’s OK to stay at home.”
Most critical for White is whether the office is a place people actually want to work in, as there are no disadvantages — in White’s mind — of people voluntarily working in the same space.
There are, however, dire implications if people work from home simply because the alternative is so unappealing.
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