Sunday, 20 September 2015

Coffeeshopification of workspaces

My first experience of a workspace was in the early '80s in Calcutta. As a little girl I would sometimes tag along with my parents just to satisfy my curiosity about the place they called home from 9 AM to 5 PM on weekdays. I have rather faint but intimidating memories of large oak paneled walls, men in formal attire and lots of paper files. Even on Saturdays, the place wore a high degree of formalness and discipline.

The bada sahabs and the minions lived in two separate worlds under the same roof. Large wooden doors isolated the two worlds. Bada sahabs’ jobs were to do something very important called ‘think and discuss’ and no efforts were spared to insulate their world from regular office sounds such as the ones made by clacking keys of typewriters or a stray laughter, lest they interfere with their important work. Their oak paneled offices had large wooden tables on which multiple telephones and leather bound files were neatly arranged. There would also be a round bell on the desk that would be used to summon a minion with a thump of a hand.

Junior management, reverential to a fault, sat outside. Thick paper files jostling for space on unkempt tables. There was no concept of interdependence. The well-attired grey haired occupants of the oak walled cabins ‘knew it all’ and the bush shirted men who sat outside surrounded by Godrej Steel cupboards were still learning the tricks of the trade. Men inside instructed the men outside to do and they did, without a question.         

Technology as we know it today had not invaded the offices. Perhaps telex machines, Casio calculators, black telephones and Remington typewriters were the only 'tech' gadgets in the office and there was an army of people especially hired to man these gadgets. Use of these facilities were only available in a confined space called ‘office’ and one had to be present in an office to dispense their duties.    

Cut to the post liberalisation era. Technology in the form of desktop PCs had begun to permeate offices.  Every day more and more work was being done on Microsoft Word, PPT, Excel and so on. Official communication was being sent via Lotus Notes and more conversions were being had over handheld Nokias. The concept of a specialized army to man the gadgets was slowly giving way to a more DIY culture.

While there were still two separate worlds, the barriers had begun to come down. The oak panels had been replaced by glass, the attire had become a shade casual and calling people by their first names was totally acceptable.

I am almost sure that the change was not brought in as a gesture of benevolence or cultural modernization but as a result of the need of the hour. With more and more work becoming technology dependent, the older, tech challenged folks needed the tech savvy upstarts to exist. Just as the young bunch needed the older folks to grow. This interdependence led to workspaces becoming more transparent, both physically and metaphorically. 

Cut to 2015. Walk into any modern day office and there is a high degree of chance that you will mistake it for a coffee shop. Colourful walls made of steel meshes instead of bricks or glass panels, fluidity of space, world-class modular furniture, absence of cabins, et al reflects the times we live in.

The office space is now just a place for people to jam over coffee and come up with bigger and better ideas. It is a place to socialise offline -  exchange thoughts, meet people. 

With portability of devices and a positive move towards paperless offices, hot desking is de jour. Offices are being redesigned to be multifunctional spaces. Just like its occupants, the spaces too need to have the ability to change roles in a moment’s notice - from a work-station to a meeting room to a party zone. 

Thanks to technology, dependence on a defined workspace is shrinking every day. Armed with our smartphones, we carry our ‘office’ in our pockets at all times. I do more work over Whatsapp messenger, a cross platform mobile app than I do using any other device.

The only sounds that one hears in offices today are sounds of ticking minds manifested through music, YouTube videos, conversations and no one wants to be isolated from it. Hence the only job of an office wall has now been renegaded to being a canvas for creative expressions.

While we live in exciting times, I wonder where are we headed?

With increasing concerns over global warming, real estate prices and the ever  increasing  need to cut down commute time, will it finally lead to a complete demolition of the physical space called ‘office’ and move to an app based virtual meeting ground? If so, what impact will it have on human behavior and corporate culture? Curiously looking ahead to a time not very far from where we stand now.     

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