Of Cubicle Farms and Open Design Offices; Teleworking in 2019

We all know the traditional workplace office model has been blown to smithereens. 25 years after AT&T celebrated the first “employee telecommuting day” in 1994. Now 25 years, the once obscure concept of telecommuting or working from home is trending to become more common than working from an office.

The way we “office” even when we work in an office has also changed radically. The cubicle farm seems to be facing extinction with the realization that cubicles are just padded cells with doors. Many companies have an open workspace design, meaning that the few private areas in the office space are first come, first served or by reservation only. Many people get in early to secure the good meeting rooms or quieter corners of the open office.

With many companies trying to help their employees who are losing so much productive time in their commutes, on-site work hours are changing, too. Flexible work schedules are not limited to where and when you work, but also how you work.

Many people who flourish in a traditional office environment fall apart in some of the new open office spaces. It is almost the equivalent of just setting up your laptop in Starbucks and dealing with the various distractions there.

There’s a lot of debate about the productivity of remote work. I’ve had the unique experience in my career of supervising offices in New York, Chicago and Atlanta (Midtown and Buckhead) and also working remotely.

Part of the discipline of being successful in a home office setting applies to the ability to work effectively on the road. With all three of the big cities I have officed in, the biggest drawback to productivity has been the commute. It doesn’t matter if it’s the train, the bus, some other form of mass transit or by car, it is hard to be incredibly productive when commuting. If you can actually get a seat on a train or bus, then you can sometimes get some work done and you can make a few (now hands-free) calls from your car, that commute time translates into productivity lost. And if the commute exceeds 2 hours daily then those are ten hours a week you never get back, as more employers realize the importance of work/life balance.

The advantage of the office is the ability to collaborate with large teams, and if you are a supervisor to actually see what people are working on (and make sure it’s getting done). Not everyone is suited to work on their own in an unstructured environment. This may be more true for creative people even though it seems counter-intuitive, but the friction caused by forced deadlines and holding people to schedule motivates some to be more efficient and effective. No two people are the same though and you will find some people do much better working independently.

I have also noticed over the years, that as a general rule, writers tend to be morning people and animators and graphic artists are more night owls. This gets a little challenging in television where you need both, but in Chicago I worked at a post production house where the editors did shift work and it was amazing how much the overnight editors got done with nobody to bother them in the wee hours.

What does the future hold? Probably more variations on the same. The overhead involved in having a large office is not going away, nor are some of the pitfalls of remote work. Video meetings can help bridge distances and foster collaboration, but there is no replacement for face to face. Future success may rely on being able to strike the right balance.