Will People Still Need to Go to the Office
As compared to other building types, offices are of a recent origin. In India the office was either a part of the home, or the royal court. The equipment that made these function was no more than pen, ink and paper. The first sign of automation or mechanization came with the introduction of the typewriter in the late nineteenth century. The wide acceptance of this machine eventually lead to the standardization of paper sizes, the creation of files as we know them now, and in good time, the creation of filing systems. The original Indian office had small, low, lift-top writing tables which gave way eventually to the bigger, flat-top office tables of the European kind. One piece of furniture that was immensely popular in the West but which never really got established in India, was the roll top desk.
The typewriter enabled clear printing by anyone, with or without a good handwriting. Its use in India was limited in a sense, because it could only be used to type letters in English, and because of this it did not find favour in small traditional businesses working in the local languages. As compared to modern office machines, the typewriter had the tremendous advantage that it could work with nothing more than human power.
The second bit of mechanization came with the telephone and the cyclostyling machine. These could also function without any electric power, though the telephone did require a wire connection. Since the public telephone network remained poor and telephone connections were hard to come by, the telephone became a status symbol, and the importance of a person was known by the number of telephones at his table. To be sure, the many different instruments were actually needed as separate telephone systems for internal calls, through the private exchange calls and direct outward calls were necessary. The quality of lines was uniformly poor and hence the presence of many phones in an office usually meant a noisy place. Often it was difficult to decide whether the mechanical typewriters or the telephones (and the people using them) made more noise.
In the fifties and sixties, offices were rather simply organized. A very strong hierarchical system prevailed and the office was divided between the bosses who had their own rooms, the junior managers who had small private cabins, and the general staff who sat in the hall. The size of table and indeed the chair, the number of visitors’ chairs, the presence of an air-conditioner or an evaporative cooler, thetelephone, and the anteroom with the secretary – all showed status. As opposed to this, the staff who sat in the open ‘bull-pen’ had no direct access to light, ventilation, view or even a telephone.
In the early part of this phase, documents were filed by each individual in his own drawer or almirah and when the person was absent, the documents were simply not available. In government offices this gave rise to the well-known ‘missing file’. When the common filing systems arrived, it became possible for offices to function a bit more efficiently. The main frame computer arrived in India in the seventies. This fantastic device allowed big organizations to process large volumes of data, to arrive at corporate decisions and strategies, to keep track of sales, billing and accounts. These initial computers were so expensive that even large companies could not afford to own them and had to buy time on machines run by manufacturers of computers, like IBM. Subsequently when these computers found their way into the offices, a completely new atmosphere had to be created for them. They required uninterrupted power, a dust free atmosphere, constant temperature, and a massive amount of cabling. Special rooms with raised flooring and paneling on the walls were created for these machines. The computer rooms became the new symbols of corporate status..
These were followed by the mini computers, machines that were cheap enough to be owned by smaller organizations, but of doubtful value to a small common office. The special status given to the main frame machines was transferred to the mini computers as well.
When the personal computers arrived in India in the early eighties, the office set-up began to change dramatically. The early machines were used more or less in the same way as the mini computers. Even though air-conditioning was not essential for those hardy machines, most personal computers were installed in air-conditioned rooms. During the transitional phase, the boss’s room, with its air-conditioner, suddenly became a shared space. When the personal computer transformed from a ‘data cruncher’ into a ‘word processor’, the office organization changed dramatically. It is at this point of time, one saw a ludicrous situation in which officers not entitled to an air-conditioner, asked for a computer and got an air-conditioner with it. This was also the period in which the electronic typewriter arrived and for a while gave a good fight to the word processor.
It was but natural that with computers proliferating in offices, it became common to provide air-conditioning for the hall where the staff worked. Along with air-conditioning came an improvement in general working conditions. The strong hierarchical system was no longer relevant, and a new office order, namely the open office, came into being. The difference between the old bull-pen and the new open office is that some of the benefits that were given only to managers were passed on to the staff also. The open office had light, air and privacy for all. In Germany it was referred to as the `landscape office’. Typically low height partitions were erected between pieces of furniture to give visual privacy and a bit of acoustical privacy. Some Indian companies like CMC Limited followed the Japanese pattern, and all persons, including the chairman, were accommodated in the open office. Theoretically, the open office arrangement allowed a great deal of flexibility, as furniture could be rearranged quickly to take care of new work groupings. Whether this was actually done in any office, is a moot question. Many new problems were discovered in such a situation. Noise was the biggest hurdle. In the US, ‘white noise’ generators were actually installed in offices. These created a low noise which has a masking effect on the higher pitched human voice. Closed-in meeting rooms were provided for discussions. Even telephone booths were introduced for noisy long distance telephone calls. Noisy printers were put in separate rooms.
By the late eighties the personal computer became firmly established as a means of improving worker productivity in Indian offices. As telephones became more easily available, they also became an essential feature of every work table. Wiring for power and telephones in the open office now posed a new problem.
Several different solutions for wise management have been evolved in the West. These include under the carpet flat wires, false flooring with built-in conduits and poke-through system, in which the wiring for one floor is accommodated in the false ceiling of the floor below. None of these is easily adapted in the Indian context. Under the carpet, flat wires are susceptible to damage and short circuits. False flooring is expensive, though flexible and effective. Poke-through systems are simply not suitable in our context. If the aesthetic problems can be managed, then the simplest solution is to carry the wires in the false ceiling or on an overhead grid, as is done commonly in industrial buildings. Whichever solution is adopted, there still remains the problem of connecting the machines themselves to the electrical sockets without having wires trailing on the floor. Personal computers are particularly bad in this respect as they require connections not just for power but from computer to printer, and perhaps other computers. Furniture and partitions with built-in raceways for wire management are the solution. Several Indian companies are now selling prefabricated partition systems with built-in raceways. With all these technological changes, what has happened to the furniture and to the equipment itself? The original IBM PC was designed to occupy a full work table. The video display unit was bulky. Although flat thin VDUs are now available, these have been found suitable for portable laptop computers only. But it is only a matter of time before a display unit, thin enough to be suspended above the work top, would be available. The size of the CPU itself has shrunk and it is now suitable for mounting below the table top.
Stand-alone personal computers cannot be used efficiently in an office, since using those results in the unnecessary duplication of hardware and software and even storage space on the hard disk. These resources can be shared efficiently when the machines are tied over a local area network.
The office machines have introduced new requirements of a high quality space. Unlike the old cyclostyling machine, a photocopier cannot be tucked away into a back room. Indeed, the machine is most useful when it is centrally located. The same can be said of printers. The computer and the photo copier both generate large volumes of paper, which creates problems of storage and disposal. EPABX and FAX machines are now getting installed in small offices also. Large organizations are installing paging systems to keep track of key personnel. Like the personal computer, the design and capabilities of these machines are still evolving. It is likely that the wiring for the different machines will play as important a role in office planning in future, as ducting for air-conditioning has played in the past. It can be expected that wiring needs will increase in the near future, but it is quite possible that in not too distant a future, most communication will be wireless.
Many new gadgets can be expected to move into our offices, and it is certain that they will have several functions built in. The fax machine already works as a photocopier and telephone answering machine. Picture phones are already a reality and cellular phones that communicate directly with satellites are being talked of as a technology whose time has come. And when these new communication technologies arrive, would people still need to go to the office?