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    « Human Resource Executive Forum 2011 | Main | Logo Outrage and Lack Thereof »

    All these empty spaces

    This morning’s drive from one suburb to the next, on a commute that I’d bet is quite similar to many of yours:

    Signs are everywhere along this suburban two lane road, the kind of road that you’d see in the near and semi-near outskirts of every mid-size city.  Signs reading ‘112,500 Sq. Feet - Class ‘A’ space, will divide’. I pass four or five of these signs on my 10 minute drive each day. Not really from my drive, but you get the idea

    These seemingly relatively new, perfectly adequate, likely inexpensive ‘Class A’ spaces going vacant, with buildings designed to hold dozens of tenants and hundreds of workers hanging on to the three or four anchor companies, while holding out the hope that as the economy and job market improve, so might the corporate real estate market.  And perhaps it will.

    After I pass the last of these ghostly office parks I stop at the local coffee/bagel shop for a refill. The parking lot is always packed with cars.  The shop itself, (not a hip or trendy place at all), is buzzing with activity and energy. This morning, like most, nearly every table is populated with people talking, drinking coffee, and working.  Laptops are out, portfolios, resumes, project plans, blueprints - all to be found. This isn’t a ‘lone hipster hanging out all day in a coffee shop with a MacBook while looking 'pained' kind of deal’, these are the kinds of traditional, rudimentary, and entirely adult kinds of meetings that used to take place in some of that vacant Class ‘A’ space just up the road.

    Heck, all the ‘work’ going on in the place makes it hard to even find some space to sit and hang out for a bit. Kind of reminds me of how it used to be impossible to score a conference room in the office. Which in is of itself one of the dysfunctional paradoxes in many traditional workplace environments - management and leadership insist that everyone congregate every day in a central location, for a fixed time period, but there is hardly any functional, effective, and even available space to actually work together. So most of us sit in our offices and cubes all day and email, IM, and occasionally call each other on the phone.

    What should happen to all these empty office spaces?

    Can communities and organizations re-configure, re-zone, re-deploy the spaces? Should we start by tearing down the inner walls, removing the acres of metal file cabinetry (the unfortunate by-product of the unfortunate excesses of paper creation), and put some old sofas and easy chairs? Set up a range of flexible and communal workspaces? Contract with the local coffee shop for a steady supply of caffeine that doesn’t taste like it was ordered from the same catalog as the industrial cleaning supplies?
    Our attitudes about work are changing faster than our infrastructure. The designers and owners of places like the coffee shop can (and have) reacted more rapidly to these attitudinal changes and more expansive thinking about what the appropriate ‘place’ for work can be. They might have better and free wifi access than many offices, and they provide for many a conducive work environment without being restrictive, you can sit wherever you like, stay as long or as short as you care to, even, in the best ones, allow you to connect with people that may not have anything to do with your company or work, but just might provide the kind of inspiration and re-charge that most traditional office workers rarely get to experience.

    In ‘Caddyshack’ the Al Czervik character, a real estate developer played by the great Rodney Dangerfield observes, ‘Country Clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wastes of real estate there are’. I think perhaps if Al observed all the ‘Class A Space Available’ signs and the coffee shops and bookstores packed with workers, he might add ‘Suburban office parks’ to the list.


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