The Office is Dead – Long Live the Office!

The equation hasn’t worked for a long time: “One person = one desk” ignores the most important variables, such as process orientation and mobility. These days, when you want to stake out your work environment you don’t need a cellular office as territory, or your own desk as a status symbol. Quite the opposite – less conventional office design often means a lot more in the world of knowledge workers. Because they are mobile and are spending less and less time at a single workplace. A short history of the NTO (Non-Territorial Office).

Desk sharing, business club, hot-desking, flexible office – these terms have established themselves in our vocabulary. The concepts they reflect show how much our work environment has changed, regardless of what corner of the world we’re sitting in or the industry that we work in. But if you think that this development only began a few years ago, you are mistaken. The first attempts were developed and implemented more than two decades ago. The greatest common denominator: non-territorial work.

From teleworking to the non-territorial office

As is so often the case in our highly industrialised world, in the beginning there was oil. In order to save employees from having to commute so often in an age of climbing oil prices and scarce resources, the first forms of teleworking emerged in the 1970s in the USA, from the satellite office to the home office. The foundation was laid in combination with technological innovations that since the 1980s have revolutionised, and continue to revolutionise, our entire communications infrastructure.

The concept of the non-territorial office (NTO) refers to the surprisingly simple epiphany that a workplace does not necessarily have to be a desk that you occupy from nine to five. In many cases, our experience has shown that workstations are empty for long stretches, whether because of mobile work outside the office, the use of other rooms within the building, meetings, holidays or employees who are ill. The economically efficient utilisation of existing office space was and remains one of the crucial reasons for introducing an NTO.

Functions are changing

It has also been demonstrated that it is effective to provide different work environments for different tasks. About 30 years ago, people were still convinced that an office workstation should be designed in such a way that it would be suitable for the greatest possible number of various activities. However, this created workspaces that were not really right for any activities. They did not offer optimal conditions for full concentration – or for interaction. On top of this, space requirements were relatively high, and every workplace had to have access to a lot of technical equipment.

In the mid-1980s, an elementary shift occurred: In March 1985, an article entitled "Your office is where you are" appeared in the Harvard Business Review. The authors, Stone and Luchetti, put an idea on the table that was actually revolutionary. The concept was no longer oriented towards the individual workstation; instead, it identified places in which work was being done away from people’s own desks, again and again. And it was precisely these "other" places – meeting spaces, project workstations, closed quiet compartments for concentration, etc. – that became the focus of design and received the attention that had previously only been paid to the personal workplace.
Today, in an extension of this idea, many work spaces are optimised for specific functions. This saves room and the user can also seek out the environment that best suits their work. Including mobility.

NTO pioneers

In the 1980s, a series of research programmes began investigating the effects of technological developments on office space planning. Many of these took place in IT companies or were commissioned by them. And it was also these same IT-sector companies and institutions that first implemented large-scale variations of the NTO around 1990, such as IBM, Digital Equipment Company (taken over in 1998 by Compaq and part of Hewlett-Packard since 2002) or the Shimizu Institute of Technology in Tokyo. Such companies were predestined for these kinds of offices because of their affinity with technology in everyday business, their high mobility and a sufficiently large number of employees.

The big bang, however, did not come yet. Non-territorial work remained limited to large companies in the IT and consultancy sectors, and was only viewed by the broader public with scepticism.

Increasingly mobile

Everything changed in Y2K: In 2003, the Fraunhofer Institute completed the Office 21 user study, which clearly showed how mobile and flexible our work environment had become. Only 39.4 per cent of respondents corresponded with the stationary work model, i.e. people who spend most of their time at their desk. The share of people who worked in an office, but at several different places in the office, was almost as large. About 23 per cent worked relatively often outside the building. The study viewed team-oriented office forms and teleworking as best suited for the future, and the non-territorial office concept was assessed as having an above-average developmental capacity.

More recent research, such as the 2009 Bene-commissioned study, "Space for Thought", by the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art in London, deepened our understanding of the mobility of knowledge workers in detail. Of the four defined work typologies, both the Gatherer and the Navigator are ideal candidates for an NTO. And even the Connector only uses his personal workplace half the time.

Applied psychology

The difficulties associated with implementing NTOs are mostly at the emotional level. Because the individuals are losing their fixed places, they therefore must also give up a certain degree of their private sphere. Today, we still require an extremely cautious approach and good change management when our "own" workstations are to be turned into office space with workstations used by different people. And: the focus should not just be on the advantages of space and efficiency; the "loss" of the personal workstation must be compensated by other offerings – such as diverse, attractive zones and areas that adapt to individual work tasks and enable privacy or recreation. Other offerings such as fitness rooms, cafeterias, meeting zones and much more also belong here. Reaping the actuarial benefits of optimised floor space utilisation while ignoring the emotional needs of employees doesn’t work at all. Dieter Lorenz, professor for occupational science at the University of Applied Science at Giessen, pointed this out already in 2001: "Eighty per cent of the costs in a workplace are personnel costs, and about 8 per cent are room costs. It doesn’t make much sense to frustrate the 80 per cent to save a little bit on the space." Lorenz also emphasised the great potential of non-territorial offices.

An unsuccessful experiment

But: the introduction of the NTO can go really, really wrong.
One example of this is the U.S. advertising agency, Chiat/Day. In the early 1990s, the renowned agency was confronted with a new generation of creative competitors. Former agency head Jay Chiat decided that something had to be done, and that something completely new should modernise the way the agency worked. His vision: the virtual office. Working without fixed workstations, without paper, practically without storage and personal trappings. The office as a kind of art college campus, with groups of couches and tables pushed together in open space, without cellular offices or zones for privacy. Every employee would receive a PowerBook and a mobile telephone in the morning, work wherever they wanted during the day, and return the devices in the evening. A tiny locker was available for personal items and documents. Before the implementation, Chiat supposedly spoke with 100 employees about the idea – but he didn’t take their concerns very seriously because he was so convinced that his concept would work. In 1994, the employees moved into the new office in L.A. ...

The concept of the "virtual office" was celebrated enthusiastically in the media, and the agency was cited in all the headlines as an industry pioneer on its way into the information age. The reality, however, was different: unhappy occupants desperately hunting for free tables, a little bit of privacy or a room where they could concentrate; hiding their documents in corners or in the back of their car, though they had to run in and out to get them. Employees who locked themselves in one of the few closed meeting rooms so they could finally work in peace; users who showed up at horribly early hours to get PowerBooks and phones, of which there weren’t enough. Finally, many of them didn’t even come into the office (this was also part of Chiat’s plan), but outside of the office they were much less productive. And even in the office, people would have to run around forever looking for colleagues who were no longer where they used to be – in short, pure chaos.

Chiat, however, was unstoppable, working with the Italian architects Gaetano Pesce to redesign the New York office as an NTO void of private space. With its intense colours, amorphous shapes and extremely whimsical, yet fully impractical accessories and features, the office was soon derided as "Disneyland" by the users. In the media, it was another success that drew visitors from all over the world, but in terms of the actual work done there, it was just as big a catastrophe as the L.A. office.

When Chiat sold the agency a year later to Omnicon, who then merged Chiat/Day into their own agency, TBWA, the ghost was exorcised. A few innovations, such as the high technology standards, diversity and a tendency towards more open design, remained, but other features were watered down; above all, employees won back their private rooms and areas for concentrated work. Since 1998, the Los Angeles office has been presented as an inspiring city landscape with "Central Park", "Main Street", a basketball court, a bar made of surfboards, and interlaced team areas and workstations. The motto is not "get out of the office", but rather "live in the office". Although this specific design also has a few disadvantages (e.g., a lack of windows), that’s another story...

How to use

Switching to an NTO is typically more effective the lower the occupancy ratio is, i.e. the more users work away from their personal desks. The NTO optimises desk utilisation, reducing the overall number of workstations (and space requirements); the extent to which this can be done depends on the mobility of the users. This has to be surveyed beforehand, individually and thoroughly. If there are too few desks there will be anger and a lack of productivity, which can ruin the whole concept.

The idea shouldn’t be merely to share desks; instead, it should free up space in the sense of a diverse open space, designed to be functional and attractive with team areas, meeting rooms, lounges, interaction zones, recreation areas, think tanks, etc. An informal information, living and communication landscape is a motivating compensation for the loss of the personal workstation.

Hotel software (which also works outside the office) is helpful for people to reserve a workspace, or they can sign up indoors at the reception area. Or they can select a desk just-in-time. Typically, each user parks their own Caddy for storing documents and personal items in the office, and then rolls their Caddy to their selected workspace. Of course they always have a laptop and mobile phone. If the option exists, the user logs into a telephone so that he can be reached at his normal extension.

The most important rules in the NTO: First, the Clean Desk policy, which states that, at the end of the day by the latest, the desk must be completely cleaned off and all personal materials must be stored in the Caddy or taken away, so that the next user arrives at a free desk. This also means, however, that as many documents as possible should be digitised because the space available in the Caddy is limited. Also, if some employees work in a non-territorial manner while others have fixed stations, then the latter group should not receive preferential treatment when it comes to storage space. Everyone should have (roughly) the same amount of space. This is important because it will ensure that the users of the fixed spaces digitise their documents as well so that communication problems don’t arise between employees.

Conclusion: Non-territorial office designs have become a part of everyday life now. Currently, numerous companies of all sizes and in all industries are realising the benefits of this fusion of transparency, interaction and information into a very professional and yet sensible working space. What do they hope to get out of this? A competitive advantage thanks to efficient use of space and process optimisation, including mobility...
Franziska Wermuth: Organisatorische und personalwirtschaftliche Aspekte des non-territorialen Büros. Konzeptionelle Grundlagen, Empirische Ergebnisse, Gestaltungsempfehlungen. Lizentiatsarbeit, University of Bern, 2001.


Ronnie Heiner