Friday, November 24, 2006

Digi D' House: An almost paperless office

I was invited by my new son-in-law to the official opening of his company's new office block, the Digi D'House in the Subang High Technology Park. It was called the D'Family Day, to which all the employees and their relatives are invited. There was plenty of food and drinks, and I had my lunch PLUS my dinner there. There were also clowns, some in stilts to entertain the guests, particularly the children. The Digi Celebrateens (talented teenagers spoted by Digi) were also there with their songs and performances to entertain the guests.

We were taken on a tour of the new offices (3 blocks). It was like an office I have never seen before. There were no cubicles, only open offices. And not only that, there were workstations, some with desktop computers, others with only means to connect the employees' laptops. There were NO drawers! Anything that need to be locked up had to be placed in individual lockers in another room. No one have exclusive use to any particular desk. They are free to use any particular available desk to work on. And at the end of the day, everyone's desk have to be cleared of stuff.

Everything was wireless. Communication was by mobile phone and emails (Digi is a mobile phone operator, so calls are free). Thus papers were hardly used. If anything need to be printed, or if any stationery needed, there are printer centers where paper and a printer is available. You just print from your computer and then go to the nearest printer station to collect your printed materials. This is not used often, so D' Block can be described as an almost paperless office. A good move towards a more environmentally friendly office.

At the back of the office blocks was a natural rock cliff, with a waterfall, and there are steps to climb to the top of the top of the cliff for anyone so inclined. At the top of the cliff is an exercise station. With all this, one would expect the staff of D' Block to be pretty fit.

Here are the photographs of the rock cliff cum waterfall and the exercise station:
Malaysia Digi D' Block rock cliff backdrop
Rock cliff cum waterfall

Malaysia Digi D'House exercise station
Exercise station at the top of the cliff

Hope someone from Digi may drop by and comment in what other ways Digi's offices are environmentally friendly.


Digitude said...

This idea of an open, cubicle-less, non-assigned, non-personal, non-private office has been tried before - and has failed spectacularly before.

The exception may perhaps be with sales staff, or staff that spend most of their time out of the office. In such a case, it makes sense to "hotdesk", since the desk is only required occasionally, and the employee's primary workplace is actually outside of the office.

If what you saw are workspaces for sales staff, or for staff who spend most of their time outside of the office, I feel Digi is heading in the right direction.

However, if what you saw are workspaces for everyone at Digi, then I feel Digi may like to reconsider. Innovation, creativity, efficiency and productivity will likely take a significant hit.

If there are strong reasons to actually require a physical office for staff to work in, many of those same reasons will require staff to have personal, private space.

Human beings, like anything else, will always look for the path of least resistance - the easiest way to get the most done. They want to be able to talk with people they need to talk with, and many times, they need to do it now. Often, they need face-to-face interaction - quick, spontaneous social interaction necessary to get a work task done. When they need this interaction, they will not want to go through any sort of a search ritual that makes the task unnecessarily difficult. They will want to turn around and talk with a team member, get the information they need, and get back to work. Or they will want to take a short stroll to look for that someone they need to look for, immediately knowing where to look for that someone. They will not always want to pick up the phone, or send an email message asking, "Where are you seated today?"

Electronic communication - whether it be phone, email or some other internet enabled communication technology - has enabled us to achieve new levels of efficiency and productivity. We are able to do many things that we were never able to do before. But it does have its limits. It cannot supplant face-to-face interaction. It has been successful in helping us because it has enabled certain news ways for us to communicate and use our time more effectively.

But try using the phone, email or a web conference to communicate and develop an abstract or complex new idea - one that requires speech, body language, sketching and scribbling, and looking at drawings and diagrammes from different perspectives. Then try doing it with more than 2 people. It can suddenly become painfully obvious why people still need to meet up face-to-face.

Such meetings can sometimes only require 10 minutes of everyone's time. Imagine having to schedule a meeting for 10 minutes among people from the same team or department, simply because you cannot quickly find everyone you need in the short time you should be able to, since they are not sitting near you, or in the same place they were sitting yesterday. At best, you will have to pick up the phone and key in those few keystrokes to contact each and every person. A simple task, one might be inclined to think - until you have to do it, knowing there is a better way.

Human beings are also creatures of habit - they like some order, regularity, familiarity and predictability in life. It is no different at the workplace. They will want to come to work knowing where they will sit, who will be sitting around them, what their desks will look like, and that their neighbourhood is more or less unchanged since yesterday when they left. They will not want to visit a locker in another area, pull out what they think they will need, then start the hunt for a desk. They will get a little lazy, bringing out fewer and fewer things from the locker, believing they should not need all that many things for the day ahead. They will then get irritated having to occasionally visit the locker to get things they thought they did not need but actually did – all while knowing there is a better way.

When the way people like to work gets disrupted, like it probably will in such a transformed office, people get frustrated. The office is not being designed around how people actually work or like to work. It is instead being designed around how the company would like people to work. People are being constrained to work in a rigid, inflexible way – an idea that may initially seem counter-intuitive given the system and physical layout of the office. This new way of working is more of a hinderance to the office worker, rather than a help. In effect, the layout will create new and truly unnecessary problems for the office worker. Innovation and creativity will most certainly suffer. Efficiency and productivity will likely follow suit.

The office worker knows there is an easier, better way, but yet he (used in its gender neutral sense) has to deal with what is before him.

One of 2 things will happen in response to the frustration – the office worker either loses his mind and goes crazy, or he starts to adapt and works around the problem.

He begins to create his own personal world by picking out that favourite desk and finding ways to get a preferential choice each day. He begins to occupy meeting rooms for lengthy periods, because it gives him that personal and private space he needs. It can become a bit like a favourite car parking spot battle, or a turf war between competing gangs.

This is human nature - people like their cosy, familiar worlds. And if they are thinking about how to find this cosy, familiar world, and about how to solve all these new, unnecessary problems being given to them, they certainly aren’t spending all that valuable time doing their work!

For an excellent case study of what happens when there is this type of radical transformation of the workplace, do a search of "jay chiat social experiment" on Google. I have provided some results below:

With regard to paperlessness in the office, I will say this - almost all offices will do or will want to do much more printing than they realise. As much as we think we are doing all of our work electronically, paper still plays a big part in our lives, both at work and at home.

Given a choice, most people will prefer reading from paper over reading from an electronic display. The electronic display simply cannot give the same sort of navigational flexibility that paper provides.

Here’s an exercise to consider. Make a guess of how many pages are printed a month at your workplace. Then go find out from the person or department who manages the printers and copiers exactly how many pages get printed each month. Pick the previous month as an example, and get a few more months before that if possible. Many would be surprised at just how much printing is done in the office. Chances are your guess is much lower than the actual going rate.

The thing that stops many of us from printing in the office is inconvenience - the effort needed to get up from the desk, walk to the printer, find your printed pages among the many in the output tray, and walk back to the desk. Or speed – the printing being too slow. Some of us might also be discouraged from printing because of cost.

The fact is, we want those printed pages. Take away the cost (most of us do not have to personally pay for the printing we do in the office), and the speed factor (most office laser printers are fairly quick these days), and put the printer right next to the office worker, and see how much printing he will do – lots!

We have this natural affinity for paper. Take paper away from office workers and watch them get frustrated. One of 2 things will happen - they either lose their minds and go crazy, or they will adapt and work around the problem (i.e. they'll find some way to sneak the paper in!).

I'd be most interested to see how things turn out at Digi, and do hope you will keep us informed.

Peter said...

Hi Digitude,

Thanks for taking time to write this long, interesting comment. I hope someone from Digi will respond and tell us how the system is working.

Peter said...

Hi Digitude,

See this new post. Answer to some of your concerns: Digi D'House: An almost paperless office Part II.

Peter (Blog*star 2006)
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