The conversation about remote work and so called alternative workplace strategy has been going on for over 25 years now. Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when things started to heat up in this arena, there were several practical limitations on what is now being called “distributed work.”
First, management techniques were much more likely to be the primitive type displayed in the 1980 movie Nine to Five. One of the stars of this "how not to manage" film is none other than country music icon Dolly Parton. This was her first feature film, and Parton portrayed secretary Doralee Rhodes in a leading role alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Parton received nominations for Best Actress and New Star of the Year at the Golden Globes.
The ladies have to deal with “eyeballs on” management. If the boss can’t see you working, you must be slacking off. Bad management is just the beginning of Doralee's problems. She is constantly refusing advances from her boss, the sleazy Franklin Hart, Jr., (played by Dabney Coleman) in the movie. It’s a good thing it was a comedy, because today Franklin Hart would get to take a long pimp walk for his actions. Management techniques have evolved and work environments are usually less hostile these days. A different time, and in many respects, a happily distant memory.
Nice Fax You Have There
Speaking of technology, it was, of course, light years behind today’s amazing and ever evolving machines and apps. The “technology” in the flick consisted mainly of typewriters and ashtrays.Wireless meant FM radio and eventually, huge “brick” cell phones. Facsimile machines were emerging as a hot new technology, and the currently omnipresent iPhone wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs' eye.
Data security in this simpler time was much easier to manage. Today, it is a major issue. Americans are used to living in a very open society, and we generally have no idea when someone is snooping our information. Now, it might not be just the typical bad guys trying to steal passwords or credit card numbers. You might find yourself the victim of international espionage by another one of the highly competitive countries striving to catch up to the United States.
Let's get a little lingo on the table to facilitate this discussion. Sociologists call the home the first place. The office is naturally the second place, and Starbucks (or other suitable coffee-house or restaurant) is the third place.
Here’s the rub: employers can adequately control data in the first and second place, but are generally hopeless in the third place. Think about it — at a public restaurant you are using an open network, chattering openly on your cell phone about potentially confidential work matters, and unwittingly allowing shoulder surfers of all kinds to read your tablet or laptop screen. You don’t mean to be a security risk, but you certainly are.
There’s been a conversation going on in high level real estate circles over the past five years or so about creating a private Starbucks – the so called Fourth Place. I know, it sounds like something out of a spy movie, but your highly paid knowledge workers increasingly want and need a Starbucks type environment in which to work.
The personification of this space is taking on different forms. Some companies are trying to create areas within the workplace that are for the community at large and unassigned. Many service providers including consulting firms, certain law firms, accounting firms and private equity shops are creating a sort of uber private coffee shop that allows the highly valued employee to plug in and caffeinate.
Others, including a large money center bank, have tried to create a completely separate location for a Fourth Place concept. The idea is for employees to be able to show up in any major city and, instead of heading to Starbucks, they would unpack in a custom corporate confab of remote office nirvana. I can smell the espresso now.
Of course, executive suites have been around since the Dolly Parton flick. Quality of the product varies widely, but national providers such as Regus are usually of high quality. This option, however, is the equivalent of eating out every meal. Executive suites are convenient, but cost can add up quickly.
Another option was featured in a recent USA Today article. Hotel purveyors are testing rent by the hour (or block of time) offices. Traveling business people are willing to pay for time away from the bustling lobby.
Why not just work in your room, you might ask? First, it's a little awkward to host meetings in one’s private sleeping room. Secondly, the whole idea of the third or the fourth place is to feed off the energy of others. Finally, many non-registered guests are interested in working and meeting in the hotels.
The Times They Are a Changing
Employers who wish to compete in the coming war for talent will have to provide high value employees with freedom to work when and where they want to. While this is not new, the form and function of this work cocoon will continue to evolve.
In fact, savvy commercial real estate leaders continue to focus on driving productivity and efficiency for employees, and not just focusing on “sticks and bricks.” Furniture vendors are following suit. Here's a nice piece by Herman Miller about collaborative work styles.
While few professionals can simply work nine to five anymore, at least we don’t have to put up with Franklin Hart’s miserable management. Some things DO change, and change for the better. By the way, when was the last time you got a fax?