"When I worked at Nortel, we'd spend hours filling out these activity reports," he adds. "Now I just look at the software and I can see what people are doing."
It's also true that "official" office space hasn't entirely vanished, even among the ranks of the new start-ups. Some of them have found that after years in business, they need to get some sort of space to hold meetings with clients or for group staff meetings; in other cases, they can't fit all their corporate stuff in their bedrooms or basements, and need an overflow spot. At Mob4Hire, King began renting a small Calgary office mostly to hold meetings. Since he and his local staff hate commuting, they still work from home the rest of the time. And even when they're forced to finally get an official home, many of them avoid the hassle of managing it by turning to the new market in "co-working spaces" - places like the Code Factory in Ottawa, or Station C in Montreal, where entrepreneurs or the self-employed can rent a cubicle or two, often on a limited-time basis, sharing printers and faxes with other people; they can focus on growing their business while letting the managers of the space take care of the scut work like taking out the trash, managing the Internet and paying utility bills. Itteco's Paramonau rents space on an on-demand basis at the Code Factory, from which he and his partner manage their worldwide network of employees.
And even those who wind up renting space find they don't use it the way a previous generation would have. In Mirzaee's case, it took him four years to get to the point where he needed more space than he had at home. Then, he rented a small office in Ottawa South for four of his local employees. But he still finds that employees work from home when they "really need to get work done."
Indeed, there's a generational clash emerging between the new regime and their older counterparts - who expect companies to be housed in gleaming office towers. When Mercury Grove's Annan applied for a federal grant that helps hire technical workers, he discovered not having a physical office hurt his credibility. It incensed him: He'd already done $1 million in business, he'd been asked to present Mercury Grove's software at the prestigious DEMO conference in California, and he was creating jobs. But to the government, he wasn't real because he didn't have an office.
"These grants are based on land, not on how many jobs you create," he fumed. (Mirzaee has a more humorous version of a similar story: When Boknow applied for a government grant, the federal agent insisted on visiting their office. They spent a frantic weekend trying to make his home look official, cramming all the furniture into the bedroom and printing a corporate banner to string along one wall.)
Yet there's other evidence that the officeless trend will grow, because it's percolating up from the grassroots. In recent years, some large, established Fortune 500 firms - particularly management consulting and accounting firms - have begun to dematerialize, shedding real estate as they realize that their cubicles are often empty. Employees are either working from home, travelling or holding meetings outside the office. Why pay for all that expensive real estate if you don't need it? Using that logic, the management-consulting giant Accenture has significantly reduced the square footage of its global office footprint, says Sharon Klun, the firm's manager of retaining talent.
Some prominent architects believe the trend will remake the way we construct new office buildings. Frank Duffy, a British architect who founded DEGW and became famous for his pioneering office design in the eighties and nineties, predicts offices of the future will have fewer traditional conference rooms and private offices. Instead, they'll have plentiful - and smaller and more casual - meeting areas, and unstructured space where employees can drop by to work for a day, on the increasingly rare occasions when they're not working from home or in the field. More and more meetings will be conducted outside the firm - in airport lounges, bars and cafés. O'Neill, too, predicts offices will become more "residential" in appearance, filled with sofas and chair arrangements that replicate a Starbuckian feel.
"It's the interstitial spaces between buildings that are more important now," Duffy tells me. "It's no accident that Starbucks has flourished in the last decade. It's providing this interstitial space in between companies, places to meet." The office may never go away - but in 10 years, will we recognize what it's turned into?
Special to The Globe and Mail
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