Out of sight. What became of the virtual office?


by Magnus Shaw.


Working in an ad agency in Fleet Street in 1995, I was called into a first-floor office to be shown something very impressive - an email account. Visually it was quite modest, just some browser windows with names and messages in columns. But in practical terms it was a revelation. The MD's researcher, who had been granted ownership of this system, demonstrated its ability to send a typed message, in real-time, from her computer to any other connected machine in the world. Heady stuff.

A few weeks later, at a friend's office, I was shown a picture of the Pet Shop Boys downloading very, very slowly from the internet. It was coming from a server 'somewhere in the world', I was told. Incredible.

Even then, the seeds of possibility had planted themselves in my mind. If we could send instantaneous messages to clients and suppliers - and they could view images from anywhere on the planet - it surely wouldn't be long before laborious journeys to and from meetings, and time-consuming client visits would be a thing of the past. In a rather vague way, I felt the future was arriving.

By the turn of the millennium, we all had email addresses, (dial-up) internet connections at home and networked computers on our office desks. We were all wired and connected, so what next? Well, there was serious talk and earnest discussion about 'remote working'. I was with an agency in Leeds at the time and, along with many colleagues, was commuting a considerable distance to work each day. The idea that the studio and account handling departments could be devolved to allow us to work from home, coming together only when strictly necessary appeared a wonderful prospect. It didn't happen.

In the subsequent two years or so, many business and technology magazines jumped on the phrase 'the virtual office'. Excited centre-spreads predicted the rise of commercial enterprises based, not in concrete and glass buildings, but in cyber space (another term that has all but vanished). A few case studies proved the viability and it was all but certain we'd all soon be employed by companies with no physical HQ. It didn't happen.

And here we are in 2012 and guess what? It still hasn't happened. Certainly, working remotely is considerably more practical and freelances are no longer under such pressure to sit in strange studios many miles from home. But largely, creative businesses are still situated in office blocks, to which every staff member is required to attend.

So what went wrong? Why did virtual companies fail to establish themselves as the norm? It can't have been an unrealistic financial model. Rents on office suites are a substantial overhead for any agency, so the opportunity to jettison those charges must be attractive. And it cannot be questionable technology. With a reasonably cheap mobile phone, I can make and send video or photographs, write copy, draw, email, text, record audio and even book flights and view websites. Add a laptop and there's more digital capability in my briefcase than I could ever need to do my job effectively.

Unfortunately, I'm convinced the 'virtual office' failed as concept for more psychological reasons. Directors and managers just couldn't overcome the anxiety which accompanied the idea of a workforce they couldn't see. I'm sure when the notion was properly considered, visions of designers lounging around pubs and copywriters having long baths on company time loomed large in their senior minds. In short, the suggestion of a 'virtual office' convinced them they'd lose their power and control.

This is a shame. Anyone who occasionally works from home will tell you how productive an experience it is. I can honestly say a working day away from the office has often enabled me to achieve at least twice as much as the same period in the workplace. Unnecessary meetings vanish immediately; colleagues bent on distracting you with chit-chat or questions can no longer get at you and the time you would usually spend travelling can be given over to essential tasks and projects.

Sadly, these accepted truths of remote working have proved insufficient to overcome the lack of trust between employers and their staff. It is not enough to be working, you must be seen to be working. While this rather backward approach exists, the 'virtual office' will remain the pipe-dream it was when I first saw those emails in 1995.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

A collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.


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