Recently, I have been thinking about what would happen if you just removed the physical presence of the office from the profession of architecture. A firm would simply be a network of people scattered all over the place who came together as needed. This is what I call the cloud office. Given the technology and the economy, there are many start-ups who can’t afford the overhead of a real office. Many of the ones I have heard of operate out of apartments, coffee houses—wherever they can get free wifi. They may not realize it but their economic limitations have placed them on the cutting edge of business culture. In fact, larger, more established firms could learn a lot from recent grads with laptops and smart-phones. More after the break.
This is on the heels of some forward-thinking strategies that other business industries are adopting. For example, issuing laptops for telecommuting and instituting flex-time are just a few. This saves on wasting money on lease-space, for one. But suggestions such as these to architecture firms seem to cause inordinate reactions. Jaws drop. Heads fly off shoulders. The idea is not to completely give up the concept of a centralized office. This would still exist, but it would be more like a truck stop or an airport lounge. Personnel would flock there and plug in. This would also be the base for support staff—whom would also enjoy the benefits of telecommuting and flex-time. Because people would cycle in and out, the office could be smaller. People would be in constant contact from remote locations.
These strategies can do more than simply introduce cost-saving measures; they raise moral questions. How? Because they are based on a higher degree of autonomy, flexibility, connectivity, and trust. It’s an approach that envisions how employees can most effectively accomplish their goals without micro-managing supervision. One example that follows this model? The University of California, where one might imagine that the constant presence of staff is a foregone necessity. The truth is that many departments throughout the different campuses not only offer flex-time for their staff (not just the faculty), but also allow telecommuting. Why? Because they understand that effectiveness and efficiency are not place-bound. The modernist reliance on penning employees within an office has not solved the problems of productivity many architecture firms are so concerned about. People surf the web and they search for distractions around the coffee machine/kitchen, as well as other people’s desks. Surreptitious visits to the bathroom turn into prolonged conversations on cell phones in the corridors. Texting occurs under the not-so-subtle cover of desks. Indeed, many studies have shown that people cannot concentrate on the same task for more than twenty minutes. That’s right, twenty. After that, the mind needs a break, which it will automatically enforce through a conversation with one’s neighbor or a little furtive web-surfing. Wouldn’t it be better to allow the flexibility of, for example, telecommuting once or twice a week, in an atmosphere one feels comfortable with and enjoys? Those breaks would still be taken, but in a comfortable setting that, counter-intuitively to most management, would actually encourage better work productivity.
Because as it is now, about the only things people can do for necessary shifts in attention and productive distraction are look on the internet or go outside. You did read that correctly. Productive distraction. I just coined that term. It’s the necessary distraction that contributes to creativity by allowing the mind to engage in other tasks, before returning to the original task. These moments of turning away facilitate creativity and provide the mind the diversity of activity it requires to maintain a high-level of sharpness. So, it is actually good for your brain to close your CAD window for a few minutes and read an article like this on the web, or listen to music, or get up and do some tai chi in front of your co-workers. In essence, by providing more diversity of experience beyond immediate work tasks, flex-time and telecommuting promote more and better productivity. Business trips do not excuse one from working, and so why should employees be required to be office-bound the rest of the time? Branding exists as a symbol and image, not in the fixed location of those desolate pods of drab plywood/mdf cubicles many firms seem to favor. Architects are supposedly more creative. Isn’t it time they embrace different, more flexible approaches that have proven successful in other business sectors? One example of a possible direction is CASE, a practice consultancy based in New York. In partnership with IDEO, SHoP Architects, Arup, The New Building Institute, and Columbia University, they have come up with BLDG 2.0, an open-source platform for mass collaboration to verify design performance. While this “collaborative infrastructure” is focused on sustainability and building performance, it isn’t too far of a stretch to envision something like this working at the level of design or construction documents. Many firms already have the infrastructure in place to adopt a cloud office model. Again, not totally abandoning a physical space, but being less reliant on it or innovating a new type of space based on more flexibility and movement. [Many thanks to my editor, Sherin Wing for bringing this piece back from the brink!] The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.