Don’t forget the human factor

As the technology revolution gathers pace and the ‘virtual agency’ becomes a reality, human concerns must not be sacrificed on the altar of progress. John Shannon reports

It is a source of constant concern to international agency managements that on any given day 40 per cent or more of their staff may be out or away on business – leaving a high proportion of expensively rented office space unused.

This is particularly true of agencies handling pan-European and global accounts that require executives to spend a large amount of their time travelling. Managements rightly see their resulting unoccupied space as wasteful and are constantly seeking solutions that would enable them to need less space or to use existing space more creatively and cost-effectively.

The most talked about solution is, of course, the “virtual agency”, typified by Chiat/Day in California. The arguments for this pioneering approach are usually steeped in New Age jargon of the information technology revolution, but at their heart lies the more prosaic drive

for efficiency.

The jury is still out on whether the technology-driven virtual office, where employees have “no fixed abode” within the agency and merely plug in their PCs wherever they are, is really a panacea for the future.

But it has inspired debate throughout the world about how to create a workplace that meets budgetary, technological and human needs.

Grey recently addressed this issue at a staff forum in Paris. There emerged a range of interesting suggestions about how to use technology and adapt working procedures and structures to improve cost-effectiveness, while retaining a human touch in the company overall.

Interestingly, the character or style of the working environment was still deemed to be of high

importance.

In particular, attention was drawn to the growing number of agencies in Continental Europe choosing to inhabit unusual buildings or settings that contrast dramatically with the impersonal nature of the technology that they employ.

Examples of this include buildings of architectural or historic interest, sometimes featuring gardens where employees could relax, and in other cases even swimming pools. The range ran from converted farm buildings to a former Spanish bordello. Such unusual, somewhat “uncommercial” locations often involve lower occupancy costs than conventional modern office blocks.

One concern frequently voiced whenever new technology comes up for discussion is the implicit threat to the human element in any business context.

Of course, agencies must harness and make wider use of flexible, mobile technology.

But if that entails the diminished use or dependence on traditional office settings, then the working environments of tomorrow must compensate for the loss of traditional territory by embodying other features.

These must address and appeal to human needs in new and imaginative ways while still meeting functional and financial priorities.v

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