Our fairly intensive participation in the design process for the new IT building got me thinking about what a place of work is and why a knowledge organisation, like an IT division, would have one. The new building is essentially an office building: it will not house technical infrastructure such as the data centre, but will be the place of work for the division’s engineers, system administrators, technicians, architects, analysts, software developers, managers, etc.
Besides the admittedly exciting “green” design features, such as the vertical garden, optimal orientation, solar PV panels, rainwater harvesting, bicycle store, and various other efficiency elements that will make it far more energy-efficient and sustainable than other buildings of its type, the other intriguing possibility that it presents is the opportunity to influence change in the culture of the IT division. The catalyst for this “change of culture” could be the university’s new norms that require that all new office buildings be “open plan”. For an organisation that has become accustomed to being housed for the past 25 years in what can only be described as a “rabbit warren” of cellular offices leading off dark, desolate corridors, this is a radical departure. There seems to be much trepidation and negativity about our “open plan” future, some of which at least is simply related to humans’ default discomfort with change of any sort 1.
The most commonly heard argument against an “open plan” office goes something like this: IT people are generally introverts (i.e. they get their energy from being alone, not from other people) and need to be able to do their work in relative isolation without distractions and in silence. A a card-carrying introvert I happen to disagree for reasons that I will get to, but it did make me think about why we all generally have “a place of work”, a place that we go to to do work. The reasons seem to be obvious at first blush: many jobs require people to co-operate on creating a physical artifact, such as in a factory or on a construction site; other types of work require the use of facilities, laboratories or tools only available “at work”; students come to classrooms at universities and professors need to be there to interact with and teach them (a notion that is now also coming under challenge); workers “require” supervision and “have to be” under some compulsion to be at work for a given amount of time (a dystopian hangover from the Industrial Age), etc.
However it is also increasingly true of knowledge work of the type that many IT professionals engage in, that many of us could operate quite happily from home most of the time, given a fast Internet connection. Service desk staff increasingly support their clients remotely, administrators can administer their machines from anywhere, developers can write software everywhere and deploy it somewhere else in a moment, even the machines themselves need not be located on campus anymore. The Internet has potentially liberated us from the constraints of time and – especially – place.
If a large proportion of IT staff can potentially work in splendid isolation and silence from the comfort of home, why do we still need to congregate physically on a daily basis at a place called “work”? If our alledgedly introvert preferences are better satisfied by remaining ensconced in the privacy of our homes, why would we want to replicate isolation, privacy and silence at the workplace on campus?
There must be good reasons for congregating at a place of work and not replicating home-like isolation and privacy there, and the reasons follow from the reality that most of us cannot function successfully outside the context of teams. Whether we are designing or creating new systems, planning capacity expansions or solving operational problems, we need to co-operate, collaborate and communicate with others within, and often outside, the IT division. Such teams may be fixed but are often temporary in nature, depending on whether they coalesce around a new development or problem, or maintenance of operational systems. The nature of knowledge work is increasingly social, requiring intensive communication, interactions, knowledge sharing, continuous learning, consultation, etc.
A well-designed open-plan space, along with furnishings and tools that promote flexible team-working, and supplemented by well-resourced and abundant meeting/breakaway rooms will improve collaborative work and communication. A place-of-work must after all be fit for the type of work being and to be done there. The new building is a building for the IT division’s future, not its past. As such it can be a useful tool in helping to enable the division’s changing role.
And perhaps now is the time to consider how work in the Information Age – and its successor – can be organised. Should we not consider allowing people in certain roles who can do work remotely and need to do so in isolation and without distractions from time to time, to work from home at, and for, agreed times? Should we not ensure that the new IT building is a place where we do mostly collaborative work? Should we not provide for a certain “floating” capacity of workstations that are not allocated to specific people? These are the sorts of debates that we should be having instead of the sterile open-plan-versus-cellular-offices one.
This post was originally posted on the IT Division’s blog.
1. For an IT organisation “change” is the only constant. Besides having to adapt to a rapidly changing technological landscape, the advent of “shadow IT” and the “democratisation” and “consumerisation” of IT, it has to discover and define its new role in a university where information and the application of ICTs have become strategic. Tomorrow’s university IT division does not look like the one of the last 25 years. Furthermore, this university’s IT organisation is facing its first major, imminent change in leadership in more than a decade, and possibly with it, a change in positioning and level within the university hierarchy.