I’ve been talking with a long time friend and an ardent reader about the future of the physical office–the place where people go to work with computers managed by an organization using an IT staff and connected to a centralized server setup–the sort of place that nearly everyone works at today. The physical office costs tons of money to run, is incredibly inefficient, uses a lot of resources, and has a huge carbon footprint. After talking about this topic for a while, I’m becoming convinced that the physical office served a purpose at one time, but now it has become the domain of the control freak boss who has to know precisely what everyone is doing at precisely every minute. (There are no economic or technical reasons to maintain the physical office that I’ve been able to come up with.) Given all of the events that are going on in the world today, I think the virtual office–an office where you report to work by logging into your computer at home–will eventually become the norm.
There are many scenarios where a virtual office won’t work and this post doesn’t include them. For example, I can’t imagine a virtual hospital working with today’s technology–you’ll still need to visit the doctor in his office. Services which require personal contact will still require some sort of centralized facility for the time being. However, even with government offices, it’s becoming quite possible to do everything needed online without actually visiting a physical office, so the virtual office is possible even in this environment. All they’d need is a reliable web host to make sure the office is never offline when needed – someone like hostiserver.com perhaps – and it’d be solid.
Physical offices require infrastructure that is duplicated by the home. You have the physical building, the resources required for human needs, and so on. In short, you’re using two buildings to meet requirements that could be addressed by one. Because physical offices are built to meet industrial requirements, they also cost more to build and maintain than the home. In short, physical offices are a money pit that drag down the bottom line of any company using them.
Now, consider for a moment that everyone has to drive to a physical office. They face energy zapping traffic for some amount of time each day. According to an ABC report, Americans spend 100 minutes on average behind the wheel commuting to work. That’s 100 minutes that the employee could be working instead of driving. At least half of this commuting time comes off the top of the employee’s energy reserve, so organizations are wasting an employee’s best energy on traffic. In addition, in order to accommodate the formal office environment, the employee must conform to the business’ schedule, rather than working when it’s easiest to work, making it quite likely that the business isn’t even receiving the employee’s best effort when they’re on the job. The virtual office promotes efficiency by making it possible for an employee to perform work when energy reserves are the highest and it’s possible to devote dedicated time to the needs of the business. Sick days are also less common because the employee can work at least part of a day in most cases.
Resource usage is higher per person in a physical office than at a home for a number of reasons–the most important of which is the perception is that someone else is paying for all of the waste that occurs in this environment. For example, all the lights are left on all of the time in most cases. In a virtual office environment, where each employee is responsible for paying the cost of things like electricity, you can be certain that less is wasted. In addition, consider the waste of unnecessary print jobs (or the need to print anything at all in this digital age). There is also all of the duplication that occurs between home and office–placing the office in the home negates this duplication.
Global warming has become a topic of much discussion. Whether you believe in global warming or not, there is one thing that you must realize–the energy sources used by most people on the planet today are finite, so using fewer of them is better. However, consider the carbon footprint of a physical office for a moment. There is the carbon footprint of the office itself, which probably won’t be reduced much by the virtual office, but it will be reduced at least a little through increased efficiencies and reduced waste. In addition, there is a carbon footprint of all of those drivers going to work. The physical office also consumes land space that could be used for trees or other natural elements that would work to reduce the planet’s carbon footprint. Physical offices are an ecological disaster.
Virtual offices are actually possible today. As an example of what it is and what it can provide, check out this Virtual Office in Melbourne. I know of at least a few companies that have no physical presence at all. They rely on electronic communications, use the cloud or a hosting service for data storage, data backup, and services, and outsource their IT needs in many cases (or have their IT person remote into the systems as needed for updates and repairs). A properly configured virtual office makes it possible for companies to hire the best employees, even if that employee is in some other location than the boss. Software makes it possible to monitor employee activity (so the control freak can ensure the employee is delivering value for the money paid). Some businesses that operate in a virtual office decide to apply for a registered office, so that the employees have a place to meet up if they need to discuss work-related matters in person. This is just one of the many benefits of a company registered office can bring to your business if you are required to meet the standards of a physical office.
All of this makes me wonder just how long the physical office will remain. If nothing else, I see companies adopting the virtual office to remain competitive. The physical office is an artifact of the industrial revolution, where workers had to be in a central location to make widgets of various types. Today, changes in how widgets are made, may eventually make it possible for people to control factories completely from a remote location, which means that going to the factory won’t even be necessary in many cases–robots will do the actual work and maintain the systems. Humans will monitor the robots (something that is already increasingly happening today). What is your take on the virtual office? Will the need to conserve resources and reduce the planet’s carbon footprint win out in the end? Can the need to reduce costs drive control freak bosses to embrace the virtual office? Let me know what you think at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.