People must pioneer the way

Jay Chiat’s crusade to revolutionise the traditional office will probably be remembered as one of the advertising industry’s more courageous if quixotic projects. Only now is a true picture of life in this utopian environment emerging.

Chiat’s dream of paperless, deskless offices was intended to liberate employees from the tyranny of the workplace and in the process release their creative energy. In fact it led to a working environment that eventually became unsupportable.

In a major analysis of the project for Wired Magazine in the US, the respected advertising journalist Warren Berger writes: “When Chiat announced he was going to take away his employees cubicles and desks, equip them all with portable phones and powerbooks and turn them into wandering advertising nomads who could perform their tasks wherever they liked, the story captured the imagination of desk-bound drones everywhere. Oh, to trade places with Chiat’s virtual pioneers, who had been emancipated from cubicle bondage and mundane office protocol.”

Essentially the concept of the virtual office is one that grew out of advances in communications technology. It was easy to rationalise and justify on the grounds that it would allow employees freedom while at the same time saving money on costly office space. The reality was very different.

According to Berger, the Chiat Day experiment resulted in “petty turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, employee insurrections, internal chaos and plummeting productivity. Worst of all there was no damn place to sit.”

Certainly, technology has a crucial role to play within the communications environment – but only as a tool to support the successful functioning of corporate activity. It should be a tool to improve efficiency of communications and support creativity rather than a force for dictating working methods.

In this respect it has often been the agencies of Europe, particularly those of Scandinavia, that have led a real, if quiet revolution in harnessing technology to improve corporate environment. The most successful are retaining the best elements of traditional working models, for example individual desk spaces, fixed telephone lines, but enhancing them with the benefits of new communications technology – e-mail, mobile phones, Internet data access, agency intranets, client extranets, videoconferencing and so on.

This evolutionary approach generates genuine benefits, in terms of productivity and in establishing an environment more suited to creativity and innovation.

Agencies must harness and make wider use of flexible technology. But if that entails diminished use or dependence upon traditional office settings, then working environments of tomorrow must compensate for the loss of traditional territory by embodying other features which ad-dress and appeal to human needs in new and imaginative ways while still meeting functional and financial priorities.

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