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(Orlando) Let’s just ditch the whole physical office thing. Everyone can leave and work from anywhere you want, wherever you want.

Since the Middle Ages over a thousand years ago, offices have been an important part of getting work processed, organized, and facilitating communication. Prior to the rise of the personal computer, one almost had to be physically present to be part of the workflow.  In the last century, your physical office was not only necessary for work; it helped define your status.

The role of physical space in corporate America began to change in a significant way when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were young men. Since Messieurs Gates and Jobs respective contributions to society have taken hold, we’ve begun to experience a refreshing sense of mobility.

In the past ten years or so, there’s been much written about the so-called alternative workplace. The trend of "density with dignity" gets ratcheted up a notch every time budget committees meet.  Once corporate leaders realized they could significantly reduce their second largest expense, all sorts of human experiments ensued in cutting the real estate budget. Power offices are so 1985.

Enter Generation Y. Forbes describes them as “workers born from 1976-1991, represent a new class of employee:  one shaped with a deep appreciation of technology combined with a desire to work collaboratively as teams versus seeking advancement solely on the basis of individual contribution.”

Well, try this on for size: no office anywhere.

It’s done in the start-up tech world all the time, but I’m talking about a virtual 123-person company where the CEO and the mailroom (oops, there’s no mailroom) ergonomics coach all work from anywhere and nowhere. Those employees work in 26 countries, 94 cities and 28 U.S. states

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Automattic Office

I’m describing the company know as Automattic, who’s officeless experiment is profiled in recent Wall Street Journal article. The company makes the WordPress blogging platform, which is used by millions including yours truly.

Meet at your Starbucks or mine?The company’s approach is breathtaking if you think about it for a moment. How do you communicate and really get anything done? What about water cooler chat and team building? How do you create and indoctrinate company culture in new hires?

I saw Automattic’s Lori McLeese, head of human resources, speak at a recent CoreNet Global conference in San Diego. Lori shared that the company carefully screens employees to make sure they can function in such a remote environment.

Other ideas she shared:

:: Each new employee gets to spend time in a video chat with an ergonomics consultant who helps them set up their home work space.

:: New employees have to work in customer service for a few weeks

:: The company communicates through their own blogging platform, very frequent instant messages, and occasionally by telephone.

:: Managers work to communicate clear goals, then post them on internal blog.

:: Each department or team physically meets once a quarter for a week, and the entire company meets for a week every year (the “grand meetup’).

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Google Office

On the other end of the spectrum is Google. The mission of their corporate workplace group is to “Build environments that keep Googlers feeling energized and inspired.” Google has been an innovator in office environments since its founding. 

As has been widely documented, Google does everything it can to keep its employees IN the office. They believe in the importance of place, and they know that people need human interaction to thrive and excel on projects.

In this link, you can take a look at the inside of Google’s New York offices, which I have personally visited. They are stunning not only for their design, but because every convenience one can possible imagine is provided.

Google really, really wants you to come into the office.

 

One Extreme or the Other

To some extent I think both the Automattic and Google approaches to office are extreme. Both companies are true thought leaders in how they create their spaces, and both have their raving fans.

You probably have a friend that engages in some extreme sport. I have friends who skydive, compete in extreme athletic events, and rock climb. I admire them all, but I’m likely to continue living a more moderate lifestyle.

The same is true in the office world. While I respect what the Automattic, Google and other companies have pulled off, I suspect most of corporate America will remain more moderate in the implementation of its office space.

However, as the economy recovers and the War for Talent rages, those in the commercial real estate arena would be wise to watch what the thought leaders are doing. It may make sense to provide flexible work schedules and more frequent reviews, whatever the workplace looks like.

Whatever the solution, keep an eye on changes in this arena. Oh, and I just saw a very tempting ad for a whitewater rafting trip. Hmmmm…….