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Study predicts the end of the office as we know it – if true, the face of the printer industry would be changed forever

Issue #1007/1 – Reports are emerging of an academic study, involving both Microsoft and the Institute of Directors in the UK, suggesting that remote working will/should expand dramatically and that companies should reduce their office space in favour of either home working or renting space for employees in shared bureau facilities – or both. This would have major implications on the way IT is delivered and also on the profile of the printer and MFP market. This article considers some of the conditions, benefits and downsides relating to the demise of the office as we know it, together with consequences for printer and MFP manufacturers.

Everyone is agreed that remote working is on the increase and that there are major benefits to be achieved through remote working – reduced travel costs, reduced office facilities costs, more flexible working, improved individual lifestyle and – hopefully – increased productivity. However, when people start talking in terms of the “end of the office” and “death of the desk”, frankly I respond to this with a great deal of scepticism, exactly the same response as to the suggestion of the “paperless office” or the “demise of the mono printer”15 years ago.

Typing poolThe typing pool is long-gone

OK, we can reckon that the prospects of actually experiencing the paperless office are (a little) closer now than they were 15 years ago but it is still a long way from becoming a reality, with paper volumes continuing to increase. However, we do have to accept that the introduction of the personal computer signalled the rapid demise of the typing pool!

So, using this as a starting point, although we talk of the end of the office now, in 2010, there is very little prospect of seeing it as a reality for many years to come.

We all know that it is great not to have to go to the office every day and, indeed, even I fall into that category with just a three-mile, five-minute journey to a pleasant office environment with all of its hardware and printers to play with! For others, the attraction of remote working is to be able to avoid the daily grind of a one hour or 1½-hour commute into or around their major city (something I have also experienced).

We also know that the technology now exists for us to be able to accomplish pretty much anything we please, one way or another, from an out-of-office location.

But, is it about technology? Is it about enabling people never to go into the office or is it about enabling people and organisations to be flexible enough for employees to work from wherever necessary, whenever necessary, without any of the hang-ups and handicaps that we have been stuck with historically?

Microsoft may be proved right in its assessment – but only to a degree. I believe that human nature is a far more powerful force here than mere technology. After all, technology is a servant and, if it ever becomes the master, then we’re all in deep trouble (are we in danger of forgetting why Dave had to disable Hal back in 1968 – or was it 2001?).

In reality, managers are loath to trust their subordinates fully – “are they putting in as much time and working as hard when at home as they do in the office”? There is an inherent compulsion in managers to be in control and to exert authority by monitoring activity and productivity, not just output, and to have face-to-face interaction with employees.

A recent report by a UK employers’ organisation, Opportunity Now, shows that, while a high proportion of remote workers trust their colleagues and feel trusted by their colleagues (average ~70%), a much smaller proportion of corresponding office-based workers feel that degree of trust for and by colleagues (average ~30%). This is very interesting because it shows that experience and freedom changes attitudes. The study goes on to show that managers who work remotely themselves are more likely to trust their employees than managers who are office based.

It seems clear then, that remote working can engender trust but only in those who experience it. And, as more remote workers are subsequently promoted to management roles themselves, we stand to see a shift in the status quo and can reckon that the culture of remote working will become a more feasible reality.

Ultimately, if we’re talking about breaking down those old historical human tendencies of mistrust, and about being able to use technology to its fullest potential, then all well and good. If we’re talking about creating a society where workers do not play their employees for a short working day, or lazy lifestyle, then even better.

However, how often do we hear statistics on the number of hours employees spend on personal activities on the internet, on social networking sites, doing personal email, etc., etc., per day or week – during office hours?

There are also potential downsides to remote working for the individual.

I have spoken with people who have specifically needed to instil into themselves a work ethic or discipline when working at home. So, they get up and dress in their business suit in the morning; go out of the front door; round to the back of the house; in the back door; and settle down to work in the dining room. At the end of the day, they shut down their workspace; go out of the back door; round to the front of the house; in the front door; and change out of their suit in order to detach from the working day and enjoy their evening.

At the other end of the scale, one person never got dressed – all day! Living in a bed-sit, he would get up; eat breakfast; settle down to work in his boxers at his desk in the same room; often work through to late evening; and then climb into bed. Not good! When he got married and moved into a house, he decided that he had to make the point of renting office space outside the home in order to get out of the house; focus on work; and then focus on giving his wife the quality attention she deserved in the evenings.

There are two ways this could go, then.

Firstly, none of the old habits change and business will, broadly speaking, continue as normal with most employees being office-based (apart from the road warriors and those with specific mobile or temporary remote working needs).

Or, secondly, our business infrastructure will change forever and many of the business premises and commercial office blocks will become deserted and derelict as even large multinationals compact down into small office spaces purely for core functions and infrastructure facilities that cannot be outplaced to individual’s homes.

Personally, I don’t see the demise of the office occurring for many, many years to come. If it did though, what would be the impact on the printer industry?

We would be faced with two scenarios – working in rented bureau space and working from home.

In the case of bureau working becoming the main method of remote working, the impact would be less significant than where workers were home-based. There would be a downsizing of corporate office space and a corresponding increase in bureau space but the needs of the bureau facilities would be very similar to the needs of corporate facilities and these could be fulfilled by an existing enterprise-style approach to IT and provision of hard copy.

Printer manufacturers would still be called upon to provide hardware, services and supplies for print and multifunction devices in an environment serving hundreds of workers. Departmental MFPs and printers would still be required but with an increased importance placed on secure and private printing.

Open plan corporate officeA shift from this …

It is, therefore, a rise in home working that would have the biggest impact. Here we would be talking about a drastically reduced call for departmental and workgroup level hard copy machines and a meteoric rise in demand for small, flexible, high performance personal All-in-Ones for use in the remote worker’s home or home office. Even with the availability of sophisticated digital communications, every work location would need to be serviced by a multifunction hard copy device.

… to this?Home office

In effect, the market would tend towards being polarised, with high-end production machines at one end serving mass hard copy distribution needs and personal devices serving the day-to-day needs of remote workers at the other. In the middle would lie a much smaller than present demand for a corporate hard copy infrastructure to serve the much smaller than present network of head offices and core business locations. It would also severely reduce the market potential for Managed Print services.

This would tend to push the bulk hard copy market profile towards inkjet technology though there would, no doubt, be a major battle between inkjet and laser technologies.

MFPA shift from this …
Suitable personal AiOs are available from all of the main inkjet manufacturers – for instance, Hewlett-Packard with its Officejet range, Epson with its BX range, Brother with its wide range of business-oriented DCP and MFC devices (including compact desktop A3 multifunctionality) and Lexmark with its professional inkjet series. Some are more appropriate and targeted than others.
… to this?Inkjet AiO

On the laser side of the market, again there are a number of low-end laser multifunction devices, both mono and colour, to choose from, although the choice is much narrower within each technology, comprising just a few models but coming from all of the major manufacturers.

When such a large number of devices are required, Total Cost of Printing should be a clear priority and, if colour printing is required (highly desirable in a home environment if the device is to be a multipurpose home/office device), then inkjet technology has many advantages. These definitely revolve around cost but also include such elements as power consumption, size (not all low-end laser devices are as small as the Samsung ones), weight and, by no means least, the environmental impact of transportation, packaging and waste associated with laser supplies in comparison to inkjet supplies.

There are also major implications regarding provision of the supplies themselves – does the individual worker purchase the device and supplies and claim off the company or does the company purchase centrally in order to obtain volume discounts? How are these supplies distributed and how is waste managed? Is this justification for a corporation to purchase an entire fleet of identical personal AiOs or is there a case for delegating the entire responsibility for the device to the individual.

If the individual is responsible, there can be no consistent maintenance or support structure, no volume discounts to benefit from and individuals may waste large chunks of time troubleshooting faults and difficulties without the dedicated support structure of the central corporate location.

If, on the other hand, the company is responsible, there are issues with providing the relevant support to the required location when required as well as challenges associated with managing multiple devices that are scattered individually across a wide geographical area.

In fact, Lexmark has already though about the challenges of corporations managing fleets of remote devices in the development of its SmartSolutions, part of which allows remote devices to be managed, updated and monitored remotely by IT staff from their central corporate location (see for more information).

In summary, the UK’s Institute of Directors (IoD) issued comments in February of this year in response to a report on flexible working. The comments were based around the finding in an IoD survey that 18% of respondents (managers) said they had experienced problems arising from flexible working arrangements they had agreed to. What would that percentage be, I wonder, under conditions of increased or pervasive home or remote working instead of office working? What effect would a change of this nature have on the pricing structure of printers, multifunction devices and printer supplies?

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