So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life. —Office Space
Like books, newspapers, milk, and cable television, cubicles have an expiration date. Office space is going the way of floppy disks, desktop computers, and landline telephones. The extinction of the modern office, though not likely for some time, is visible on the horizon. We have seen the future of work, and it is distributed, centered in the suburbs, detached from expensive and resource inefficient skyscrapers, displaced from downtown into semi-corporate, semi-commercial, semi-residential environments. A report from Mitel argues that “businesses will no longer operate from static, physical places. Instead, employees will work within a ‘human cloud,’ supporting companies from limitless locations.” Many technology startups have already adopted the tools of distributed workflow, like video chatting, collaborative coding ecosystems, and interoffice social media platforms. At Parse.ly, our team is distributed across North America and Europe. Although we have a central office in New York City, the bulk of our product development happens in remote locations. The central office provides a hub for interaction with media companies and digital publishers who are also based in New York; but in a world absent the centralization of the publishing industry in urban space—in a distributed corporate future—our New York office becomes an unnecessary financial burden. Tech companies are often partially distributed, because their business operations still demand a defined “base” station. As larger corporations catch up with startup culture, it seems probable that the “base station” model for sales, marketing, and business development will become obsolete, too.
The Advantages of a Distributed Work Space
The comparative advantages of distributed office environments over traditional offices are compelling. Massive office buildings are resource intensive. Besides the initial capital investment on the structure itself, ongoing HVAC, electricity, IT, and HR expenditures make the skyscraper an extremely inefficient work space. The main benefits of centralization are discipline, regulation, oversight, and surveillance. Essentially, when a corporation collects its operations in one physical space, it is easy to maintain control over the individual components of those operations. It is simple to extend power over employees and to keep communication channels open. Theoretically, accountability is high in a central physical office, even if peripheral business operations are located offsite or outsourced. The centralization of leadership facilitates the coherent execution of strategy objectives. Nevertheless, the development of better distributed work software, including the aforementioned virtual communication platforms, diminishes the consequence of decentralization on business strategy. The total value gained from abandoning the physical office in favor of the digital and distributed outweighs the marginal losses during the transition period. Mitel predicts that shared work stations will emerge, filling a demand for sporadic in-person meetings and resource-heavy tasks infeasible from a home office.
Is the Mitel report biased?
Yes. As The Atlantic points out, Mitel “specializes in business communication software and services, and the idea that changing work preferences will radically reform urbanity seems a bit exaggerated.” Yet, Mitel is not referencing a mere change in work preferences. Rather, Mitel claims that urban infrastructure is neither economically viable nor environmentally efficient, and furthermore, that the ascendancy of distributed work technologies provides a real alternative to the traditional cityscape. In fact, Mitel recognizes that work preferences are the biggest obstacle to the transition, specifically, the preferences of conventional corporate bigwigs and the entrenched socialization of the baby boomer generation in corporate office space culture. It will take time for the reality of unsustainable economic and environmental impact to change corporate opinion, both on the level of decision-makers and subordinates. Shifts in social practice, formulated around the “9 to 5” and “commute” cultures, will need to accompany top-down distribution directives. Only then will the architectural and social world of the city begin to change.
How will cities change?
According to Mitel, cities will become predominately residential and commercial. Corporate activities will move to suburban zones, where distributed home offices and shared work centers will handle the bulk of work flow. The suburbs will increase in use heterogeneity; that is, the mixture of residential, commercial, and business activity will become more even. Work activity will be incorporated more seamlessly into daily life. Ossified notions of “productivity” will become more fluid; independence and self-scheduling will be the norm. These developments in work culture are inevitable as more white collar activity is outsourced. American “business development and operations” will need to adapt and advance. Increasingly creative, difficult, and non-linear tasks will devolve onto distributed teams.
As the suburbs absorb corporate activity and that activity migrates out from city centers, the geography of urban and suburban spaces will converge. Our cities will look more like our suburbs. Energy inefficient structures will be replaced by green design paradigms. Public transportation will expand into suburban spaces, making the suburban/urban boundary more porous. An abundance of surplus capital, high rents, luxury goods, cultural sites, and governmental institutions will distinguish the city from the suburbs. But formerly fundamental architectural distinctions will disappear. Just as the skyscraper became the architectural signature of the city in the 20th century, the widespread proliferation of low-rise and green buildings will make suburban and urban areas indistinguishable.
The cubicle—the world of gray: flannel, vinyl, steel—will give way to alternative geometries. Opacity and colorlessness will, metaphorically and literally, be replaced by transparency and diversity. I think the de-struction of the corporate city is a positive symptom of post-modernity, insofar as progressive narratives of history are useful for thinking about the realities of life under capitalism.