Thought Starters

Tech vs Place: How can Technology impact the use of Office Space?













Humans are social beings and by nature, if isolated, will find a way to connect.

Is that a fair statement?

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ”

Aristotle wrote that.

Based on what Aristotle opined, can we successfully argue that corporations require at least some office space for people to remain collaborative because of the natural inclination of humanity to be social?

Being in proximity to each other is how we have traditionally harnessed our collective knowledge and leveraged it. Then along came technology. Asking if technology has changed communication is like asking if the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has changed the climate in the past 10 years. Pretty darn obvious. Sure, we still meet, we talk, we work but because of technology we are not as closely tethered to each other or as reliant on the analog nature of face to face communication anymore.

When we work we have traditionally defined work as individual effort; alone getting a task or job done. There have always been people around us, asking us questions, reviewing our ideas and offering feedback but when we were doing we were typically doing it alone.

Old school thinking, in a way.

Is that still the case?

I suppose it depends on who you ask.

The people with whom this resonates possibly need to re-think how they work.

But, do we at least need to come together, face to face, to build consensus effectively or can we do that remotely too?

How does this affect culture?

And does proximity alone build culture?

Culture can be defined as common behaviours stretched over a period of time. Another way to define culture is people acting on stimuli in close proximity to each other. Therefore, without direct proximity would culture not exist or would common behaviours still be enough to form culture? I’m not certain the complexity of culture can be specifically defined in one way but what feels right to me is that culture is the amalgamation of common behaviours. Like-minded individuals’ seeking each other just feels right to me.

How does that attitude apply to a corporation?

When you think about a company and look at the numbers alone, dependant on size, there is no way that each person can be in direct contact with more than a few people at a time. We can’t possibly interact with more than the people in our immediate surroundings on a regular basis nor would anyone really want or need to. Naturally we are social creatures and we will always seek out a way to express ourselves to our like-minded social group. It simply becomes natural to gravitate towards others that share similar attitudes. Thereby a corporate culture develops.

Will technology change that natural urge?

Before you answer that question answer this one. From which generation are you? What feels natural to you? Do you physically need to be in close proximity to your social group, team or influencers or can technology provide you equal satisfaction? Is that sustainable to you?

Can we say that social interaction from afar can become the new normal?

We already do it every day.

Social Media is the engine and it is here to stay. As humanity reaches further into the technological advances that allow us to engage virtually with just about anyone on the planet we will see social media evolve in ways only the brightest young stars can imagine. According to the Internet World Statistics out of the 6.9 billion people on our big blue-green sphere approximately 33% has access to the internet. North America alone is at 78% which is an astounding number.

Source: Internet World Stats http://internetworldstats/stats.htm

How does that translate to how we work?

Is physical space no longer the driver for future office space design?

Will the next generation be the key influencers demanding flexible workspace and what happens when that next generation emerges beyond Gen Y? Can we still afford to accommodate for the here and now when planning for the near future? What will the emerging knowledge worker demand?

It won’t likely be space.

It is increasingly more common that we are all connected to the internet somewhere; at home, to and from work and/or at the office. For many of us it is all three. How difficult is it to imagine the knowledge worker being able to work in any of those three places. We all know that most urban centers are now fully WIFI connected. We can connect in coffee shops, gyms, building lobbies, public transit, parks, sidewalks and the list goes on. A family member can go to a son or daughters soccer match, come home, make dinner and get in an hour or two of work from the kitchen table if they need to.

For the knowledge worker the freedom to work anywhere is simply a reality today.

What does that do to their productivity and how can social media platforms change our ability to be more productive?

You can communicate with anyone these days in a variety of formats. Video is increasingly easy to use. Video conferencing used to be a big old clunky fixed in place monster of the ages. I can now talk to you via Skype and at least 8 other offshoots that offer similar services.

How long will it be before we can video chat to 2-3 people from a smartphone?

Other cloud based tools like Dropbox or Basecamp, a team based collaboration and management tool, can allow a group of people to work together, interact and share information from different locations in complete isolation from each other. These are simply two examples of many that change the way business can be conducted in efficient and effective ways.

Think of this as a reality of business today.

A company that has employees spread across the country with no physical space assets. A virtual business? It’s almost a joke to think of this as a futuristic farfetched idea regardless that the concept is still an extreme.

How far and how fast will the pendulum swing?

That may depend on how secure you feel with the virtual world.

With the changes in technology coming as quickly as ever the likelihood that corporations will be left behind in their efforts to remain current is still a viable concern. Cost to upgrade technology will always be an issue of a corporation’s business policy. IT infrastructure issues with respect to security will forever require governance but today’s technologies are highly adaptable and readily available to address mobile and virtual computing needs. Security risks to business operations via WIFI and VPN networks are relatively risk free. Issues of governance typically drive IT policy and client safety and security are viable concerns that are fully addressable in our current world when considering web-based mobile applications.

How will management respond to the idea of the transient knowledge worker?

The stigma of being seen is a considerable stumbling block in the concept of the transient worker. If you can’t see them you can’t manage them. The idea that visibility means results is starting to be left behind for a more mature approach as the workforce changes alongside technology.

Is it more viable to measure results than by being seen?

The idea of results based performance is not such a foreign concept that it cannot be addressed in most corporate environments. This is one of the most difficult considerations when addressing change in physical assets due to the political nature of organizational hierarchy. Open minded, results oriented and trusting relationships in business today are still not the norm for most of the corporate world and is a considerable hurdle when evaluating the idea of consolidating space. Naturally, some administrative functions are required in house in order keep an organizations core functions operational but changes to how the workforce is managed is essential to leveraging space reduction strategies.

How can we leverage these opportunities?

When we consider these factors and test them against a corporation’s structure if even a fraction of an organizations workforce can devote 20% of its time outside the organizations walls what begins to occur is the need for dedicated space inherently diminishes.

Some functions may have a higher average but may be more difficult to convert.

For example, senior management, often out of the office, in meetings, building business may never need a home base which is as common today as it was in the past. These individuals represent a smaller percentage of the workforce with a much greater inherent transient nature and if converted can have a positive impact not only on space reduction but as leadership. Leading by example, at the executive level, has the potential for the greatest return when considering how a workforce will respond to change.

Thereby, working down through the organizational structure, a firm’s functions and roles at each level in the hierarchy can be considered for its proclivity to share space, move within the organizational structure and to perform work outside the physical confines of the office. The viability for mobility coupled with the direct needs of each group, department or team will start to inform possible strategies for space reduction.

Regardless of the growth and impact of technology size still seems to matter.

The ever shrinking size of technology can challenge the need to have as much physical space as was common even 10 years ago. It’s not uncommon, by current standards, for the average footprint of workspace to be in the range of 225 square feet per person encompassing circulations space, amenity space, meeting rooms and ancillary space or all the functional requirements that an individual needs to perform their work.

Can an individual use much less space today?

When considering shared, bookable work space, well organized structure and the idea that not all workers are in the same place at the same time is it too much to think that the old standards shouldn’t be challenged? If even a conservative reduction of 20% is a consideration then a 180 square foot average could be achieved with little impact.

There have been radical advances with highly innovative planning strategies that can get the average footprint as low as 150 square feet per person, a reduction of approximately 33% over the average of 225 noted above but not without its challenges to business function and operations.

Effectively there is no real limit if highly innovative attitudes are prevalent but in most cases risk analysis, conservative planning and testing will dictate advances toward experimentation. That’s where the idea of scalability becomes a viable strategy to consider.

Strategies for space consolidation require time to become effective.

Testing worksharing opportunities over time requires a great deal of flexibility and the need for flexible space that can be changed to accommodate the growth in a corporation’s evolution toward its future is essential to its success. Thereby traditional construction may no longer be a viable solution when planning flexibility into a work space as the needs of business operations evolve. If a lease is structured in a manner to reduce footprint over prescribed timelines and space is configured in a way to allow low cost change and reconfiguration during shorter strategic test periods a corporation can be well positioned to respond to refinements in its space reduction strategies.

How is space going to respond efficiently to the changes inherent in testing these strategies?

On a case by case basis consideration for the true value of fixed space needs to be examined. Every business will have a need for some fixed built-in core operations space and the remainder, if correctly planned, could be considered as a furniture solution. Furniture for business has come a long way and can offer flexible solutions for all types of workspace but what’s most important here is its inherent flexibility. A good real estate strategy coupled with a strategic partnership with a furniture supplier can bring solution oriented change management strategies to life and maintain cost control when space needs evolve over test periods and through the evolution of the business lifecycle.

Where do we go from here?

Through post-occupancy evaluation each initiative can be analysed for its impact on operations, on employee productivity, business culture and its impact on the bottom line. Each evaluation can inform the change management process and the evolution of space can become part of a corporation’s strategic plan. The strategic plan can consider future research initiatives, case studies and through employee engagement become part of an organizations culture. Continuous improvement, accountability and partnership become the cornerstones of such an initiative.

Let me leave you with this question.

Do you really need that permanent space in the office?

Think about an office or a desk as a hotel room. You use it temporarily for a period of time and then move on to another location to complete whatever else you may be tasked with doing. We use hotel rooms to park ourselves, recharge and store our stuff when we are travelling.

It’s simply a touch point in our day.

Can your workspace be considered as transient as the idea of a hotel room?




About this Author: Ralph Dopping (199 Posts)

A quirky sense-o-humour coupled with an indelible sense of stylish sarcasm makes it difficult to take the world too seriously doesn't it? My faves: fun, passion and hard work. I work here everyday:


Fascinating. And provocative too. I'm all for this. I have two guys who work with me and our Head Office is Basecamp. I love the flexibility this offers and the lower overheads. Here in Stockholm there is an abundance of office space to rent for a day if necessary, but mostly I work on the run, in cafés or in my home office. When you're working in a small team I can see the benefit but I'm not sure how this would scale upwards. 


I do a lot of work with educational clients and although there's a move to Google Apps for Education to promote collaboration and new pedagogy, it doesn't really seem to be affecting the actual work space (i.e. physical environment). My guess is that industries like digital will start to eventually impact other work places increasingly so cloud-based spaces work more and more. 

For what it's worth, Sweden has one official internet school (just like a senior high) with no physical buildings.


Ok, since you asked and as if you didn't know; I'm a baby boomer. I am certainly old-school in some ways, but not when it comes to technology and what you can do with it. 


I might have mentioned at our main location, we have two offices/buildings. Because occupancy costs are one of our biggest expenses, we would gladly rent out one of the buildings. We already have a handful of people working 'remotely' but consolidating into one building might require more to work at home. 


Personally, I think there are some synergies to be had working in close proximity. I don't want to be too isolated or on that island too long by myself. However, some thrive in a semi-isolated environment so it is incumbent upon mgt to identify strengths and find the optimal blend I suppose. 


As a 'design' person, what are you projecting for the next 3-5 years?


This is a great piece and one that I think you should turn into a whitepaper for future clients.  Nicely done!  

rdopping moderator

Hey  @jonbuscall thanks for stopping in. Those are some great experiences and great examples. Appreciate the heads up. We have the same thing happening here in toronto with respect to available office space for rent for virtual or small businesses who need temporary space. great idea that seems to be making it's way across the globe.


Let's hope that technology continues to drive innovations like Basecamp to drive collaboration between people in different locals. Travel to work is not as useful and productive as utilizing technology to getting work done and using the down time for something that interests you.


It would be interesting to see some metrics on how that school's grades compares to the traditional ways of education. Thanks for your comments, John. Appreciated. 


rdopping moderator

I liknd of had my suspicians Mr.  @bdorman264 It's ok to be a Boomer. Just a label that we all need to carry around. i am on the 'cusp" of Gen X myself - made it into that category just under the wire. You are so right when you say synergies need to be found in how people feel they work best. It is the employee that is your greatest asset.


You know, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the next 3-5 years mostly because chnage happens very, very slowly. As you know innovators are few and it takes a long time for attitudes to shift. It's relevant in this conversation alone. As the workforce changes we will see new ways to work emerge and exactly what those are we cannot predict but what we can see are patterns start to emerge that will inform what we can expect to see down the road.


As I mentioned in the piece, for example, the pysical size of technology is getting smaller and smaller and easier to use and these two factors will allow people to use less space and work anywhere changing the attitude toward how we work. I agree that some proximity is necessary dependant on the type of work you do but the challenge is to look at your workforce and see where those synergies (sapce, proximity and sharing) can be challenged to economise the operations.


the whole idea behind this piece and my previous article is to challenge business to thing sustainably and see if they can derive some meaning form the concept of using less.


Thanks, as always, for your comments Bill. As many say you are a good man and truly a social guy. :-)  

rdopping moderator

Hey  @jgrossmann thnks for the comment. I really appreciate it. There is a ton more research to be done on this topic and it's great to see that you found value in this piece.



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