Face to face, or not?

Someone sent me a link to a Ted talk 'Why work doesn't happen at work'. Jason Fried gives a number of reasons for this – but they boil down to two M & Ms: managers and meetings. He's got a nice image of one's day being shredded as in a Cuisinart by these two M's.

I enjoyed the talk but it didn't get me any closer to answering the question why do 'knowledge workers' need to come to a workplace (beyond the M & Ms). We were discussing this at a meeting on teleworking and office use. We're trying to design a building that people will only need to come to for specific reasons but we're still wrestling with what these reasons might be.

A report from Harvard Business Review's Analytic Services called Managing Across Distance in Today's Economic Climate makes the point that face to face delivers a level of interpersonal confidence, understanding and business value that cannot happen through other media. The whole report sounds plausible but my skeptic meter leapt into high alert mode when I noticed that the research was sponsored by British Airways. (Another report on the value of face to face meetings was sponsored by a Hilton hotels)

Managers we're talking with do make the point that new joiners are likely to need face to face contact with colleagues in order to learn the organizational ropes. But another Ted talk – also sent by a colleague – on education innovation suggests that face to face is not a prerequisite for learning. In fact the speaker, education scientist Sugata Mitra, "gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching".

He started experimenting in 1999 trying to prove the point that children needed face to face teachers, but failed. They were able to learn to do what they wanted to learn to do. Mitra tells the story of meeting Arthur C Clarke who said 'A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.' Apply this phrase to face to face meetings. "A face to face meeting that can be replaced by collaborative technology should be."

Would this negate the need for office meeting space, usually the place where 'collaboration' is deemed to happen? I looked around my local coffee shop this morning. Around 20 individuals were drinking coffee working on their laptops. As far as I know they didn't work with each other, and neither were they speaking to each other. It may be that meeting space is less for collaborating in and more for just being warm and comfortable in, away from the demands of being at home. Since meeting space in offices still leaves one open to the M & M scenario why go to offices to sit in a warm, possible comfortable – but may be not -space?

So if we don't need meetings and we don't need collaborative meeting space do we need an office? That leaves the other "M" – managers. Fried is fairly dismissive of them too. His view is that most people can self manage – i.e. they will do productive work to their preferred schedule, delivering on time to the manager, even when not being 'supervised' by a physically present manager.

If managers took the leap of faith that they could manage remote workers, and were perhaps taught how to do this effectively, why else might people come into office space? Well some people like the collegiality of going to lunch with their friends. Others don't have appropriate houses or coffee shops in which to work. But I was reading about Boing Boing a popular blog site

"According to Quantcast data, it gets about 2.5 million unique visitors a month, racking up 9.8 million page views, a traffic increase of around 20% over 2009. It attracts blue-chip advertisers such as American Express and Verizon. It makes a nice living for its founders and a handful of contract employees."

Its 'management team' is "quite a meeting of the minds — except the minds are pretty spread out. Frauenfelder and Jardin both live in Los Angeles, Pescovitz in San Francisco, and Doctorow in London. The site's managing editor, Rob Beschizza, who also posts frequently and coordinates many of the guest bloggers and other contributors, is in Pittsburgh. Maggie Koerth-Baker, who writes about science, is in Minneapolis. Technically, nobody is "on staff"; the editors are partners, and the other regulars work on extended contracts. Most communication happens electronically; conference calls are only for dealing with urgent problems or opportunities; in-person gatherings happen, at most, once a year."

Maybe the need for 'knowledge workers' to meet face to face is over-hyped and unnecessary, it's a left-over from an earlier age, a kind of security blanket that people are reluctant to give up on?