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Phonebooths and Mailboxes

January 30, 2013

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If you can find one word that would best describe the way our lives have changed over the last decade, that word would be ‘mobility.’ Our mobile devices allow us to go anywhere, do anything and always—always—stay connected. Nowhere is this more significant than in the workplace. The whole concept of an office has changed, including the way it’s used, the way it’s designed, and the way it promotes or suppresses innovation. Smart companies appreciate the change and adapt to it. They understand the benefits.

What does this change have to do with the title of my book, Phonebooths & Mailboxes? Look around you the next time you’re out on the street. Where’s the nearest mailbox? When was the last time you even saw a phonebooth? With emails, texting and online banking, there’s not much left to put in an envelope and mail. Even grandparents are walking around with cell phones, so phone booths are quickly disappearing from our landscape. If mobility is essentially turning these icons into anachronisms, is the same thing going to happen to the office? Phonebooths & Mailboxes takes a closer look at the pervasive use of mobile technology in the workplace and the effect it has on how work is organized, conducted and experienced. So does the office have its place in today’s mobile world? The resounding answer is yes!

on the move
The business world understands that mobility is here to stay, and that it may be one of the most significant changes made by technology. If you want to know how companies are reacting to this sea change, here are some amazing statistics:

  • 89 of the top 100 U.S. companies offer telecommuting as an option
  • 67 percent of all workers are using mobile and wireless devices for work
  • 58 percent of companies consider themselves as virtual workplaces1

Learning Objectives

Interiors & Sources’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC, read the article and click here and follow the instructions.

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Identify the emergence of technology in the office
  • Discuss the trend of technology and why it will continue to increase
  • List the reasons why mobility is an important business tool
  • Explain the balance between meeting the needs of mobility and creating a robust collaborative office setting
  • Name the four types of worker styles prevalent today
  • Discuss the approach of several leading companies on mobility and technology in the office

And this trend is only going to grow. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School, talks of how work will evolve. “By 2025,” she says, “we can expect more than five billion people will be connected by mobile devices, the internet cloud will deliver low-cost computing services … and self-created content will … create an unprecedented amount of information in the world knowledge net.”2

So why would businesses necessarily embrace mobility? Because they know that people now “work” wherever they are, turning the world into an office. Mobility changes how, when, where and with whom we work. Mobility expands the talent pool to include anyone anywhere with access to Wi-Fi. Mobility opens up opportunities for businesses and workers alike.

moving in the right direction
Mobility and technology together have created great benefits, not just for businesses, but also for their workers and the world.

SPACE: A telecommuting worker (or as we’ll call them throughout this article: teleworkers, mobile workers or distributed workers) who is in the office only 50 percent of the time doesn’t need a designated space to work, but rather, a well-designed space that can be shared by a number of mobile workers as they come in and out of the office. This then frees up office space that can be used for public spaces like break rooms, lounges and central halls, where other workers can “collide” and interact. Instead of designing offices for individuals, we’ve simply started designing offices for groups.

PRODUCTIVITY: Workers are more productive when they have flexible work programs. Some of the world’s largest corporations have seen the benefits of telecommuting:

  • Best Buy, British Telecom and Dow Chemical indicate that their mobile workers are 35 to 40 percent more productive
  • Sun Microsystems’ experience suggests that employees spend 60 percent of the commuting time they save performing work for the company
  • AT&T teleworkers work five more hours a week at home than do their office counterparts
  • American Express teleworkers out-produce the office workers by 43 percent3

The reality is that the flexibility afforded by mobility turns out to extend the workday from 8 to 12 hours. That’s because mobile workers have the freedom to work when they’re most effective, whether that’s 8 in the morning or 11 at night. And since they tend to keep their mobile devices close at hand, there’s really not much downtime.PageBreak

ENVIRONMENT: Mobility turns out to be a boon for the planet as well. Research conducted by Kate Lister and her colleagues at the Telework Research Institute indicates that if 40 percent of the U.S. population that holds telework-compatible jobs worked from home just half the time:

  • The nation would save 280 million barrels of oil
  • The environment would realize the equivalent of taking 9 million cars permanently off the road
  • National productivity would be increased by 5.5 million man-years4

QUALITY OF LIFE: Workers derive great benefits when given the flexibility of working at home. Cisco’s employees telecommute, on average, two days a week and:

  • 69 percent experience increased productivity
  • 75 percent reported timeliness of work improved
  • 67 percent reported that the overall quality of their work improved
  • 80 percent experienced an improved quality of life5

In 2010, researchers from Penn State analyzed 46 studies of telecommuting conducted over two decades and covering almost 13,000 employees. The results: working from home has “favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent and stress.”6

the social animal
Every benefit has its downside. Mobility may lead to greater autonomy; it can also, however, lead to greater isolation. Humans are social animals; the desire to communicate and connect seems hardwired into our very nature. I love my smartphone and my tablet because they allow me to work freely in or out of the office. I can teleconference with colleagues anywhere in the world. But I also still want to talk to colleagues face to face. Socializing, collaboration and in-person meetings are vitally important to our psyche and our creativity. Whenever I’m asked if the office will disappear, I resort to one psychological fact: human beings are social animals who need physical contact to survive.

Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly, authors of Uniting the Virtual Workforce, coined the term ‘virtual distance’ to refer to the disconnect that occurs when people spend more time with computers than with each other. Whether it’s an associate who is a continent away, communicating by teleconference, or an associate a cubicle away who emails instead of dropping by, a gulf exists. Too many tech sources can actually inhibit the give-and-take nature of face-to-face spontaneity.7

The reality is, even though our mobility frees us from the constraints of the traditional workplace, the office is an important aspect in our ability to develop and be innovative.

choosing bricks or clicks
Consider these words addressing workplace flexibility: “It’s about attracting and retaining top talent in the workforce and empowering them to do their jobs, and judging their success by the results that they get—not by how many meetings they attend or how much face time they log.” Steve Jobs didn’t say that; President Barack Obama did, in a 2010 speech at his White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility.

In a knowledge-based economy, such as what exists today, the office is not a place to simply house equipment, documents and the people necessary for work to take place. It’s really a site for facilitating the flow of information between and among people; a place where workers create formal and informal networks for a sense of community. As part of the research for my book, I looked at the workplace strategies of four different companies. Three are located in the San Francisco Bay area and one is in Toronto, Canada. Each has its own way of promoting collaboration and community through mobility. PageBreak

PIXAR: This extraordinary company doesn’t encourage telecommuting—quite the opposite. Instead, it encourages people to come to the workplace and makes it as inviting as possible. The campus has several buildings but no desks are assigned. Instead, co-workers gather in small meeting spaces, and the mobility occurs as people circulate carrying their laptops, tablets and cellphones. A large hallway directly in the center of the main building is meant to draw employees together, creating a true sense of community. Workers also have access to a lap pool, racquetball and basketball courts and a wellness center. It’s a truly mobile and magical place to work.

GOOGLE: Like Pixar, Google practices internal mobility, even though with more than 10,000 employees worldwide, telecommuting would seem like a perfect fit. Instead the Googleplex complex in the Bay Area is sort of a self-contained city, where interaction is encouraged and “office flow” keeps creativity alive. Lunch and dinner are free, and by all accounts, gourmet in quality; employees can also get a massage, swim laps and relieve tension on the volleyball court. But most telling about this company’s approach to workforce mobility is its 32 free shuttle buses that ferry 1,200 employees daily to and from work. Once at the Googleplex, workers are highly mobile with shared spaces, break rooms and restaurants. People can relax and share ideas literally anywhere.

SKYPE: The ultimate in electronic communication, this company employs both teleworkers and internal workers. Those who come to the Palo Alto location sit at open workbenches and meet in comfortable spaces. There are touchdown areas for teleworkers, media stations designed for small groups and a cozy lounge for quiet time. And whiteboards are everywhere, hanging from pegs. Workers can take the boards down and move them around—a low-tech way to share ideas in a high-tech company.

IBM: At more than 100 years old, this endlessly innovative company employs about 6,000 people at its Toronto office complex, yet there are only 2,500 workstations—and only 1,200 of those are used on a daily basis. This is a company that truly thrives on distributed or mobile workers. There are very few private offices and most people work remotely at least 2 days a week. By sharing desks and allowing employees to work from home, IBM reduced its Toronto office space by 40 percent and cut energy costs significantly. When teleworkers arrive at the office, a touchscreen kiosk indicates which desks are available to be booked. To promote communication and connection, the desks are arranged in a pinwheel format so that employees are always able to see one another.

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Technology has changed the map of the workplace itself. As I mentioned earlier, offices are now designed for groups, not individuals. Office design today is about people and culture, rather than machines. For mobile workers, the most effective spaces are those that create proximity and eliminate barriers to communication. It’s about creating a place where people want to be—a place that encourages companionship, collaboration and community. But who are the workers in this new office landscape?

the new demographics
If we look at the new work paradigm, there are essentially four main groups of workers who require some type of accommodation in the physical office space. Each has a varying degree of, and attachment to, mobility.

FIXED-FOCUS/IN-OFFICE WORKERS: These are the traditionalists, the workers who spend most of their time at a designated desk in a designated place, whether it’s a private office, a cubicle or an open space. They may carry their smartphone, laptop or tablet from one area to another, but they are essentially static.

IN-MOTION/ON-SITE WORKERS: These workers come to an office or campus to work, but they may not have an assigned desk. They likely work at various sites within the office, sharing space or joining their colleagues in informal collaborative spots. Although this seems to be a recent phenomenon, these types of mobile workers have been around for a long time; we just didn’t call them mobile workers. We called them nurses or plant superintendents or facility managers—people with jobs that never allow them to remain in one place for any length of time.

EXTERNALLY MOBILE WORKERS: These are your company sales reps, tech reps and consultants, the nomads or “road warriors” who are always on the road, but come to the office for meetings. Extremely dependent on their mobile devices to stay connected with the office “base camp,” they often interact with the IT team. They may or may not have a designated workspace, but as long as they’re able to connect within the office space, they’re fine.

DISTANCE WORKERS: Whether you call them distance workers, distributed workers, teleworkers or mobile workers, these are the people who perform their work at a single offsite location—usually their own home. They visit the office to participate in team meetings or just to realize some valuable face time with colleagues.

design for the future of work
Before you draw up the plans for new or reconfigured office space, you need to identify the kinds of workers that will inhabit the space. You have to assess your organization and your people. What tools do they need, how much space does each worker need and for how long? Does your design mirror the culture of your company and your workers? It is critical to create a work environment that attracts, motivates, enables and retains the talent a company needs to stay ahead of the competition. Offices that have a mix of workers should offer a mix of settings; a variety of open and enclosed spaces with the frame of the office architecture. Phonebooths & Mailboxes offers ideas on how to create an engaging and adjustable workplace, one that fosters a lively collegiate culture and delivers a superior level of innovation. It should be a place where people forget they are “at work” and experience a rewarding creative, intellectual and social life.


Phonebooths and Mailboxes was written and researched by Teknion, designed by Vanderbyl Design and illustrated by Ric Carrasquillo. A digital version is available for downloading free of charge at


1 Telework Coalition web site,

2 Lynda Gratton Investigates: The Future of Work, Business Strategy Review, Q3-2010.

3 Telework Research Network,

4 “Telework Under the Microscope,” a joint study by the Telework Exchange and the National Science Foundation. March 2008.

5 The Network, Cisco’s Technology News Site, Cisco Study Finds Telecommuting Significantly Increases Employee Productivity, Work-Life Flexibility and Job Satisfaction, San Jose, CA June 25, 2009.

6 Research: Telecommuting a Win-Win for Employees and Employers, Penn State, Smeal College of Business, University Park, PA (November 20, 2007).

7 Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly, Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise, Microsoft Executive Leadership Series, April 2008


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About the author
Steve Delfino