By Andrew Barber
Following the UK Government announcement that it plans to allow property owners to convert office buildings into residential accommodation without planning permission, there has been a lively discussion in the media and online regarding the need for more housing and the redundancy of the office building.
The changes in the way we use offices has also been a point of discussion and the increase in "remote working", "home working" and the rising numbers of "teleworkers" cited as proof of the demise of the traditional office.
It is a compelling argument – after all everyone is connected to the web and can work around the clock. (It may seem a flippant comment – but as type this on a somewhat crowded, and slightly delayed, South West Trains stopping service home, the majority of those passengers who are not sleeping, have a mobile device of some description in their hands or on their laps. The man next to me is playing with two mobile phones simultaneously.)
The point is that the majority of office workers could work from home, from the car, from a coffee shop or from the train. However there is something they need other than hardware and an Internet connection before this is possible: motivation and inclination. We need a working ethic, an understanding of the culture of work and that of the businesses we work for.
Surely it is something that we all have in business? Surely even the worst "office slacker" has an understanding of what is expected of them. Even this guy understood the culture of working, after all, he did at least turn up and sit at his desk! (For the full, and rather geeky, story click here).
The truth is that the majority of employed people have an understanding of what is expected of them in a working environment. We know the processes. We know what to do. We have learnt the rules.
We wake up, we dress in suitable attire, we travel, we work, have a mid-morning break, do some more work. Then its lunchtime, which is followed by more work until it is time to go home – and your mum meets you at the school gate! We are introduced to the routine of the working day from an early age and even the youngest children have schedules that fit around the working week.
When we leave school we do more of the same at college or university or maybe we go straight into a job. This is how it was for me – and I eventually found myself at a desk, with a phone, a company car, a secretary and a string of office and industrial properties that I was paid to dispose of.
Obviously having a job is different from being in education – there is the office politics to contend with, the culture of the employer and the brand of the business. New staff quickly learn how the company functions as they interact with, and observe, other members of staff around them.
So how does this work in a "virtual" business where the majority of time is spent working remotely and alone? How does the recruitment process works in such circumstances?
Do companies that exist and function exclusively online, with staff operating from home offices, laptops on trains or tablets in cafes - ever recruit 16 year olds who have never had a proper job? In such a situation, would you feel comfortable making a business decision to employ a teenager, who had never had a job, to work on this basis? I can just imagine the reaction of many teenagers if you provided them with a laptop, a mobile phone and a broadband link. Clearly such staff would need intense management.
To avoid having to micro-manage such situations, do such companies look to recruit experienced (by definition 'mature') members of staff, tired of working in the traditional 9-5 role?
Are they, to put it in other words, discriminating against those who have never worked in an office before?
Will, in years to come, businesses that retain an office function succeed at the expense of those that don't because their staff have shared values and understand the company's culture and brand through physically working together ?
Is the office really dead?