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Editor’s Letter (April 2013): why the digital age requires new and unorthodox office spaces

Editor's Letter (April 2013): why the digital age requires new and unorthodox office spaces

Shayne Hughes, the CEO of a California-based business consultancy called Learning as Leader­ship, recently put a moratorium on interoffice emails. He defended his experiment in Forbes magazine by explaining that he wanted to force his employees to communicate with each other in person. He’s the latest in a line of corporate leaders to encourage face-to-face interaction by prohibiting email. Over the last few years, executives at Intel, Deloitte and Veritas, among other companies, have all instituted versions of the same idea.

The trend is part of an ongoing attempt to address some of the alienating aspects of the digital age: the computer, an otherwise spectacular communication tool, often prevents us from actually talking to each other. Many open-concept offices have been rendered eerily silent as workers spend their days emailing back and forth. In my office, days go by when I don’t know if a colleague who works on another floor is even in the building.

And most days, in most situations, it doesn’t matter to me where that colleague is physically. We all might as well work from home. Yet we cling to the ritual of congregating in a workplace for most of our daylight hours. I’m starting to think that the traditional white-collar office, where people sit at desks from 9 to 5, is an anachronism. (Or worse, a death trap: sitting all day is horrible for your health.)

Given that technology allows us to work from anywhere (and smart phones ensure many of us never stop), why gather at all? Because sometimes being in the same physical space makes for more creative collaboration. The social aspect of work fosters a sense of shared purpose. Also, some challenges are better tackled via in-person collective strategizing.

The best companies have figured this out. Netflix, for instance, sets high standards for its staff but doesn’t prescribe where or when they work—and famously gives employees as much holiday time as they want. Netflix also posts its corporate constitution online in a slide presentation with this telling subtitle: “Freedom and Responsibility.” The manifesto, which has been viewed almost four million times, dictates that staffers “accomplish amazing amounts of important work.” For all the executives care, that work can happen in the office, or the shower, or the Bahamas.

In Toronto, several companies are similarly cooking up unorthodox ways to inspire employees. In this issue, we feature a collection of Toronto workplaces (“Dream Jobs,” page 100) that encourage personal interaction in non-traditional meeting spaces (including a tent and an indoor parkette). The designs may sound goofy, but I admire the premise: if people are going to schlep into the office, they should do more than just email each other.

Frances McInnis, who wrote the story for Toronto Life, says that executives are overhauling their office environments in large part to attract and retain the most sought-after 20- and 30-somethings—a generation of workers who demand more from a job than a steady paycheque. It’s been great for Toronto. Big companies, like Google and Telus, are choosing to set up shop in the core to appeal to the growing population of young condo ­dwellers who want to walk to work, gleefully avoiding gridlock. And according to newly released census data, the downtown business district is thriving. After 20 years of losing corporate investment to the burbs, we’ve seen the number of commercial leases downtown spike dramatically. Maybe the office isn’t dead after all. It just has to evolve.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)

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