The mobile office

What will the office of the future be like? An experiment under way at Hewlett-Packard, one of the world’s largest companies, makes us wonder whether there will be any permanent office workplaces left in the years to come. Mobility is the order of the day. “Welcome to our mobile office! Welcome to Espoo!” Johanna Ihalainen receives us in the light and airy foyer of Hewlett-Packard’s Finnish head office, just west of Helsinki. It employs more than 900 people. But far from all of them actually work there.

Hewlett-Packard began life in a garage in Palo Alto, USA,in 1939.We meet the spirit of the garage again in several of the company’s presentations: the open plan office is part of a carefully tended heritage. Hewlett- Packard is now present in 170 countries, with around 156 000 employees. Its products include IT solutions, printers, PCs and workstations.

Johanna is a member of the global team whose brief is to transform the company’s premises and way of working throughout the world to better match new workstyles. The result of this team effort is a manual with guidelines for most things from choice of material, branding and logo use, to instructions on how to create foyers, visitors’ rooms and workplaces that facilitate working life – all without an actual office.

“We take note of surveys saying that people generally prefer to spend more time at home and to work close to home. But our basic policy is to let everyone work where they like – and when they like. The main thing is that they can find a proper place to do what they are supposed to”, says Johanna.

The idea of the mobile office extends to everyone: administrative staff, the financial people, the sales force, engineers, system developers and service technicians. All of them are equipped with their basic tools: laptops, mobile phones and an on-line connection.Well-functioning communications are simply vital for staff who don’t see each other every day.They communicate mostly via the corporate intranet.

“It’s obviously fine to sit here in the office for those who are happiest doing that, but we already make it clear at the recruitment stage that we have an open plan office and mobility concept. About half our staff are mobile – we have 600 desks for 920 employees. Some managers, often with senior functions, or people who have to use several computer monitors simultaneously, have permanent workplaces.”

All the others, the mobile ones, may use areas with vacant desks. These are marked with green labels in an open office landscape and are freely available to anyone. Some desks are large, others are small and are arranged like slices of cake.

”Surprisingly many people choose a small desk when they come here”, observes Johanna. “Maybe it’s nice to sit close together when you don’t see each other much.And we have low screens between the workplaces to reduce the noise level. People who can see each other pay attention to their voice level.”

Everyone at Hewlett-Packard works at computers. That makes ergonomics important, both as regards mouse, keyboard, laptop stand and furniture. But mental comfort is of equal importance. Apart from desks and desk chairs – of which there are many fewer than before – a whole series of other features act as comfort zones or are designed to facilitate social interaction. These are designated areas in the room marked with the aid of various colours – on pillars, background walls and similar objects.That’s the pattern here in Espoo and the same model is being applied to all HP offices worldwide.

“We try to use organic, neutral colours that don’t impose themselves too much onto the open landscape”, explains Johanna. She then uses brighter colours like blue to mark quiet rest rooms, green for meeting/conference areas, yellow for printout corners and red for café or break rooms. So it’s easy for anyone surveying the office landscape to find their bearings.

Cultural differences must be taken seriously in a multinational company.We try to keep to common themes for the environment and furniture while at the same time respecting local customs. Colours have different meanings in various cultures. For instance, there are countries where lilac means misfortune and white is a funeral colour.

“No-one should feel steamrollered. We must be good communicators and approach the issue so that people really feel excited about changing their habits and becoming mobile. Peak time is Monday mornings. That’s when people like to get together and go through the practical details of their work or merely to socialize.”

The furniture also includes cabinets for work material and/or personal belongings. At first, the idea is that everyone should have their own cabinet. However, many of the mobile workers among the 2,000 or so employees at the company’s London office don’t have a private cabinet. Mobile workers just carry all necessary things with them.The main thing is to have somewhere to lock up your belongings temporarily. It may be quite sufficient to have non-personalised cabinets. Even in Espoo.

Why is it so important to make office work mobile? Is the yearning for greater freedom the only reason?

“No, not exactly”, admits Johanna Ihalainen. “The reality is that most employees are out of office, at customer sites or traveling and the new concept just reflects the way people work today. Also economics is commonly a driving force behind new solutions. Happy employees are more productive.To let people work how and when they want simply makes good economic sense.And apart from that it saves on both furniture and office space. Twice a year we check out how the various areas are used. No under-use is allowed. If 20 percent of the desks are never used, then something must be done! Our prime directive is to ensure efficiency with respect to costs.”

Another obvious question is whether a mobile office really suits everyone. Dispensing with a time clock is fine but demands considerable selfdiscipline. And isn’t there a risk of burnout among those who simply cannot switch off in the absence of regular working hours? And without colleagues…

Johanna Ihalainen admits that people with a mobile work pattern must naturally be able to “switch off ”. The problem has been discussed within the company and internal training material has been produced that aims to teach people how to work in virtual teams and understand the benefits and possible problems.Apart from that, the company has to formulate its work descriptions with great precision, so that employees know exactly what to do whenever and wherever they sit down to work.

Regularly the staff are asked to comment on their work situation. One result is that Johanna is currently looking into how to enable people to sit together with their closest colleagues to guarantee that teams can work together when they turn up at the office at the same time. It’s not always enough just to chat via the intranet – one has to meet once in a while. Despite everything.