Tarzan the office man

The advance of technology has boosted the popularity of homeworking in the US. The idyllic portrayal of some home offices only tells half the story, says Peter Hall.

I was sitting in my New York doctor’s waiting room the other day, flicking through the magazines, when I came across a piece in Inc magazine about the rise of the home office. One case study showed a tree house office which a small business owner had built for himself for $7000 (4375). It perched like a beach hut atop the branches of a Douglas fir in his garden. I felt almost envious, imagining his primal joy as he said goodbye to his family every morning and, with a tarzanic vociferation, headed for the trees.

Home offices and telecommuting are enjoying a new credibility in US business media. Where once it was not unheard of for domestic entrepreneurs to play a recording of office noises in the background to maintain their credibility for the benefit of telephone callers, now only the gauche stigmatise homeworking. Optimistic surveys estimate that 52 million Americans work at home in some capacity, and even the more cautious Harvard Business Review puts the figure close to 40 million.

A visible turning point came, in 1994, when Jay Chiat, the Art Technology Group and Gaetano Pesce unveiled their “virtual office” for the ad agency Chiat/Day. Chiat had supposedly envisioned the scene during a Zen moment a year before – while standing on a ski slope in Colorado. In place of grey cubicles and heavy doors were team areas and communal spaces in Pesce’s paint- and resin-splashed interior. Employees were given laptops and radio phones and encour-aged to work out of the office. ATG’s networking software system provided the means of virtual communication via e-mail, chat and conferencing.

In the subsequent four years, a new definition of nirvana has emerged among the techno-chic, depicted by fantasy scenarios in which, typically, a key business deal is struck by the CEO while riding across the Sahara desert on the back of a camel, mobile phone and personal digital assistant in hand.

Such romanticisms are not entirely the fruit of free-spirited folk yearning for liberation from the shackles of the office chair. Alternative workplace schemes have been in motion since 1991 at giant US corporations like IBM and AT&T, mostly because they make economic sense. IBM is reporting over $100m (62.5m) in savings a year alone, by fostering non-traditional work practices among its sales and distribution teams and being able to consolidate unused offices and reduce associated overheads.

Employees are now increasingly working at home, in satellite offices close to home, or in “hotel” workspaces, where they reserve a spot in advance, wheel up their mobile cubby and a computer system forwards e-mail and phone calls to their communications port. The benefits for the corporation become quickly visible. Travel costs and travel time are reduced. Displaced from the habits, stress and bureaucracies of the permanent office, the employee becomes a more efficient, independent and motivated worker, and stays with the company longer.

The real world, of course, isn’t quite like that. I have been “telecommuting” in New York for six years and know the side effects. New York apartments being the diminutive size they are, the home office wages a constant war with the living room for space, which creates an interior design organising scheme reminiscent of the D-Day landing scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

A fast connection to the Internet and unlimited air conditioning are prohibited by cost, which decreases productivity and increases the desire to go sit in a local air-conditioned café or take a nap on the couch.

Most importantly, perhaps, the home office can seem a solitary place where chance conversations – the kind that inspire and inform – are only likely to happen on the phone or with the phone repair man.

A better case can be made, I think, for a flexible, shared workspace, where telecommuters could mingle, creating a more fertile, dynamic environment. Besides that, it is more likely that a design professional would be brought in to specify furniture and configure the space of a purpose-designed shared environment. Looking at the pictures of the homeworkers in Inc magazine, I realised that idyllic as their tree-bound, feng shui-inspired arrangements might at first seem, on closer inspection they were models of bad office ergonomics, begging to inflict pain on their inhabitants over time.

And, when I saw the reproduction antique wooden chair with its curving, intrusive arms pulled up in front of a computer monitor, I winced. Having suffered back pain from prolonged use of a vintage wooden office chair, I feared a forthcoming epidemic of tree office lumbago.

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