Tomorrow’s Technology Part 2: Your office is becoming increasingly useless. And that’s good.

empty officeWhile recently sifting through some old college papers, I chanced upon a piece of paper with an awfully unartistic rendering of somebody who shall not be named.

I reminisced on the sketch’s origin: a couple of years ago in college, a classmate and I discovered an online white board while poking around some of our program’s online forum features.

The program was basically the classic Microsoft Paint inside of a web browser. But the neat part was that multiple people could run the same white board from different computers, anywhere with an internet connection. If you drew a line, other people logged into the feature would see you do so in real-time—or at least a second later.

While I admit we spent most of our time with the white board collaborating on crude sketches, I later came to realize just how powerful this free tool was. If my classmate drew a body, I could add the head, and together, we’d create something neither of us could have on our own (assuming our minds aren’t exactly identical). The potential extends naturally into the business world: draft a logo, watch your colleagues add to it, take from it, or pit it against their own version. Thanks to real-time tracking of their moves, you could in some ways get inside their heads, by seeing not just the final product, but the stages of its development as formulated by them. And if you watched them, for example, connecting an “R” to a “Y” in the word “Royal,” you could say, “Stop!” (via Skype or any IM) and connect the “R” to the “A” instead. You both like that idea best—but they wouldn’t have connected it to the “A” without you, and you wouldn’t have thought to connect anything without them.

“Wait!” you tell me now. White boards are nothing new. This stuff already happens every day at my office!

Yes. Your office. Of course, how could I forget? The office is that thing that adds huge overhead to your business, which probably affects your personal financial gain. The thing that you have to commute to through polluted, red-light-laden traffic routes every miserable morning. The thing that makes you choke yourself on silk ties and specifies when you can eat your ham-and-bologna sandwich.

The upsides to an e-office

What a virtual, real-time white board accomplishes is nearly everything an office can, but without the hassle. Add a free, instant message chat, of which there is an abundance, along with free audio/video options (think Skype), and suddenly your collaborative options are as potent as if you were in the same room—if not better, because each individual is feeding off their personal creative energy they establish in their “zone” (whether it’s Starbucks, a condo terrace, or their mom’s basement). Not to mention it’s—did I say this yet?—free, and considerably more convenient for everyone involved, from employees to owners. Working from home or a locale of your choosing eliminates the annoyances of working at the office and the cost burdens on the company. And, modern technology no longer restrains the collaboration and communication practices that made the office so essential up to this point in history.

With predominantly online work, you can also seek resources on a significantly broader scope: Instead of casting your net into the talent pool of one city exclusively, because that’s where your office is, you can fish globally. Your employee gamut can stretch all ends of the earth, and that’s got to make for some diverse brainstorming.

Self-employed freelancers and small business owners have been testing these waters for decades. But now is the time for larger firms to jump in. The diving board can handle their size now, and the water’s great. Studies have indicated employee morale rates skyrocket if they’re given a day or two a week to work from home. This can mean you run a substantially smaller office and reap the benefits of happy workers. For example, if you have 20 employees, you can maintain an office with a capacity of just 5-10, and have half your workforce fulfilling their tasks from home.

Let’s recap with a basic list of the benefits of a fully or partially developed e-office (note that most apply to both employee and employer):

Convenience: Less commuting means less time wasted, and less money spent on gas/parking. This means green living and higher profits all around. 

Productivity: Allowing workers to don t-shirts and jeans at home boosts morale, and with morale typically comes productivity, plus retention and loyalty. Employees can customise their work setting to maximise their personal productivity.

Creativity: Engaged in an environment of their choosing, and with the freedom of not feeling a leash (or tie) around their neck, employees can collaborate more creatively and innovatively using online-based communication channels.

Cost: Less money spent on office attire, the aforementioned commute, less office space, computers, and furniture required, etc.

telecommuteThe downsides to a e-office

Everything about telecommuting and online communication up to this point is true, but there’s two sides to every coin. First, it must be said that nothing can possibly replace the power of face-to-face communication. I mentioned idea-based collaborating can occasionally be better online, but this is a slightly different concept. It registers on the deepest levels humans possess—this connection simply cannot be replicated in full by MSN, Skype, or a virtual white board. So it’s still essential to get together regularly in person to discuss the business. But these sort of meetings can’t happen at Starbucks; they do require a professional setting, a.k.a. some sort of office.

Beyond that, purely working from home may not be best for everyone. Many employees need the guidelines of coming into an office for 8 hours to keep themselves on track. While at home, many lack the discipline to get up early and not dawdle too long on their lunch breaks. And employers will still want to keep tabs on their employees in person—but if you’ve grown your workforce to cover four different countries, this may be exceptionally difficult.

So, like most things, the key is balance. And this balance is going to vary tremendously from business to business. You need to identify the specifics: is a global reach important? Is your base city lacking the available talent or resources? Can you or can you not afford to rent or own office space, and if so, how much? Do you foresee expansions, or perhaps trims, in the next decade? Do you trust your employees or worry they’ll goof off?

A full-fledged online workforce is a dangerous gamble, there’s no doubt. But a full-fledged in-office workforce can be a real drag, too—financially, and emotionally too, especially for forthcoming generations that have higher expectations of freedom and flexibility. Remaining competitive in most industries will very likely mean developing an online element to your work settings and standards.

=>It’s taken a sea change for traditionalists to see change, but it’s clear now: a blend of the “real” office and the virtual one really is the best of both worlds.