Unbundling the office
17.22, Friday 17 Dec 2021 Link to this post
Here’s a startup idea for anyone who wants it: outsourced, at-home video call support. Sounds really boring. Isn’t.
If you run a big internal event, and you’re at a sufficiently large company, there will be an AV (or IT) support team that comes round to make sure that the projector is plugged in, the mics work, etc.
If you run a big virtual internal event, and you’re at a sufficiently large company, AV support will do the same only remotely. They’ll call up your external speakers and attendees, and make sure they have Microsoft Teams, Chrome, etc, installed and happily working with their webcam and so on. This is good!
There are now a bunch of services which are delivered over video, to members of the public, by companies where tech support is not a core competency. I’m thinking of…
- Medical practices doing consultations over video
- Courts dialling in witnesses
- Schools and universities – teaching generally
And if the video call fails - for whatever reason - the service can’t be delivered and time is wasted.
So the startup should work like this:
- Ahead of a call (being a consultation or an event), the client company (like a school) enters the emails of everyone included, together with the software platform they’re using
- 24 hours ahead of the event, our fictional startup contacts all internal and external attendees and takes them through a foolproof, automatic setup test for the exact software configuration
- Any problems are escalated to a human and they get on the phone to sort it out
- The event/consultation/parent-teaching-meeting/etc goes off without a hitch.
If there’s actually going to be a permanent shift to doing things remotely, we’ll need a service like this. Simply from a cost perspective… it doesn’t make sense to have the expert nurse or teacher debugging any connection problems when it can be done by somebody cheaper with economics of scale.
(If the government really wanted to keep the economy going, while people were being furloughed they would have been building this service to offer at cost to the public and private sector. By the time the life support money ran out, there would have been a gangplank for companies that could to transition to a WFH future. As it is, everyone is tackling the same problems but separately.)
Big picture, this is about unbundling the office.
What is the office for? Yes it’s a place to work, but also
- It’s a place for collaboration
- It’s a place where a company can provide perks, like snacks
- It makes it possible to ensure health and safety in the workplace, because chair heights can be checked and electrical items tested
- Information security can be guaranteed
- People who don’t work together can run into each other.
That last one is important. From the New York Times last year about working from home, a piece about weak ties:
the people with whom you rarely communicate, perhaps 15 minutes a week or less.
When the pandemic hit: contact with weak ties dropped by 30%.
But Waber contends that it’s those weak ties that create new ideas. Corporations have historically seen some of the biggest new ideas emerge, he says, when two employees who usually didn’t talk suddenly, by chance, connected. But Waber contends that it’s those weak ties that create new ideas. Corporations have historically seen some of the biggest new ideas emerge, he says, when two employees who usually didn’t talk suddenly, by chance, connected.
It’s handy that the office is a single physical location such that facilities is able to reach everyone in a cost-effective manner. But there’s no essential reason that all these jobs of the office actually have to be bundled up in the office.
Newspapers and magazines got unbundled. Banks are getting unbundled.
Offices are being unbundled.
I talked about remote working perks last year and asked at the time:
is there remote work facilities management that can come set up my desk and give me a sound baffle/backdrop for my video calls?
It turns out there is! Hofy is a remote facilities management startup to give WFH employees chairs and monitors.
So this unbundling is why I don’t really buy virtual office approaches like Facebook’s VR-based Horizon Workrooms: Facebook’s Metaverse is a VR Meetaverse (Wired). Sure it might work for collaboration, but maybe there are better software approaches for collaboration… and what about the rest of the office? What about the nice chairs? Embrace the unbundling!
The most interesting part of the unbundling of the office is that it allows companies to get smaller by divesting of in-house IT, in-house facilities, long-term leases, etc. Anything that allows companies to get smaller is interesting.
The oddest part of hybrid working, for me, is that I tend to spend my mornings in a co-working spaces to be face-to-face with whichever teammates happen to be around (ad hoc weak tie connections, see), and my afternoons at home on Zoom for scheduled meetings.
Which means I commute over lunch, and mostly eat on trains.
So I choose my food based on what I can hold while I’m also on my phone while I’m also maybe standing up.
Cornish pasties have a crust “handle” because they were traditionally eaten by tin miners with dirty hands. What does my commute pasty look like?