The Future of the Workplace: No Office, Headquarters in Cyberspace

Some companies don't care where workers are as long as they get the job done.


Aug. 27, 2007 — -- Imagine a work world with no commute, no corporate headquarters and perhaps not even an office in the physical world at all.

For Bob Flavin, a computer scientist at IBM; Janet Hoffman, an executive at a management consulting firm; and Joseph Jaffe, a marketing entrepreneur, the future is already here.

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"These days we do so much by teleconference it really doesn't matter where you are," Flavin said.

Like 42 percent of IBM's 350,000 employees, Flavin rarely comes in to an IBM office.

"We don't care where and how you get your work done," said Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM's global health care and life sciences business. "We care that you get your work done."

IBM says it saves $100 million a year in real estate costs because it doesn't need the offices.

On the day we met Flavin, he was collaborating with computer scientists in British Columbia and Beijing from the on-call room of the local ambulance corps where he works as a volunteer.

The work force at the Accenture management consulting firm is so mobile not even the CEO has an office with his name on the door.

With no corporate headquarters, if you need a work space, you reserve it like a hotel room — checking in and out at a kiosk.

"Having a big desk as a sign of status with lots of family photos and you know, carpeting that's fluffy and nice, that is a vision of the past," said Hoffman, executive vice president of Accenture.

In the future, more companies with scattered work forces and clients may do what the marketing firm Crayon is doing: making its headquarters in cyberspace.

Crayon's workers rarely meet in the physical world — some are in Boston, others are in Nutley, N.J. — but their online alter egos in the virtual world gather once a week.

We never met Crayon's CEO in person but we spent a couple of hours together in cyberspace.

"Our belief is if we bring like minds together no matter where they are in the world we can actually create that connectedness as if we're actually at the same place at the same time," said Jaffe, Crayon's CEO.

Maintaining a community is essential at IBM, where Pelino said isolation is a "significant" issue. There's even a joke at the company that the name stands for "I'm by Myself."

"The casual meeting of colleagues in the cafeteria or at the water cooler is actually quite valuable and something you find you eventually miss when working at home," Flavin said. "We actually have to deliberately schedule some common lunches to make sure that we keep in contact."

The company has also started to organize spirit clubs to foster a community. As Pelino put it, "You have to create these types of venues where you bring people together and magical things start to happen."