Technology was supposed to transform our lives. Less toil, more play. Shorter working hours – and most of those spent at home in front of a computer as offices fade into obsolescence. It didn’t happen. Boundaries have blurred but home and work remain different worlds and thousands of new office blocks continue to sprout in city centres and business parks across the world. The transformation has taken place within those buildings and at breathtaking speed.
Little more than a decade ago you would need to plunge deep into the bowels of select buildings to discover sealed rooms humming with computers. Today, every desk has a screen. Then there are the fax machines, photocopiers, sophisticated telephone systems, even coffee machines which would have been unimaginable not long ago.
Technicians often boast there is more computing power on an ordinary office desk than it took to put a man on the moon. What they fail to add is that the wires, cables, connections, power supplies and cooling systems hidden in the walls and floors would put the moonshot control centre to shame.
Many older buildings cannot provide these crucial invisible arteries, which is why new ones keep rising. But even modern ones can fall short of demands by intensive users. Confidence is critical, says Phillipe Honnorat of consultants Flack & Kurtz. A financial group could lose millions for each minute its systems are down.
Today’s tenants expect enough generating power in the basement to guarantee against blackouts. Landlords should plan more than enough, however, as they have to assume these demands will continue to grow. The same applies to data. ‘The Internet is now critical because so many people use it to store their work and files,’ says Honnorat.
In fact, the ‘e-economy’ has sparked the biggest changes since the industrial revolution, according to Rosemary Feenan, European research director for real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle. She sees the rise of ‘plug and go’ buildings where tenants move in, plug in and get to work. These are no longer bricks and glass but business ‘portals’ networked across the world by high-speed data links.
Again, trust and security are paramount. Tenants demand several data feeds so they can pick their own service and be sure of back-up connections if one fails. But this is only the first step. Getting all that power and data to desks is just as critical.
Businesses use space much differently than in the past, says Honnorat. Open-plan is more common than cellular offices but IT systems must be flexible enough to cope with either. Tenants often do not know from one week to the next which layouts they will be using, and cabling must be flexible enough to allow desks to be switched around without interrupting business.
At one time that meant huge spaces under floors to cope with miles of wiring but technology has moved on in leaps and bounds. Structured cabling – a dense network of links allowing flexible connections – and the advent of fibre optics means more can be squeezed into less. John Marinello, director of information systems at Flack & Kurtz, says there are several trading floors with only 4inch [10cm] voids including a large one in St Louis.
All this IT generates heat, so air-conditioning is becoming standard. This, too, must be flexible to cope with overnight change. But developers also have to look much further forward. The threat of global warming has made every tenant aware of potential carbon taxes. ‘We will never go back to old ventilation methods but the ones we use must be as efficient as possible,’ says Honnorat.
. Technology continues to race forward and today’s new systems could soon be as obsolete as yesterday’s ‘unplugged’ buildings. The desk and its obligatory computer screen are already under threat, according to Frank Devoy, of international management consultant Ernst & Young. Businesses are recognizing that new ways of working mean people are no longer tied to one task in one place. Part of the day they may be toiling in noisy open-plan space, but at other times they want more private conference areas and even quiet enclosed space to think and study.
They cannot afford to miss an important call, however. And they still need constant access to computer files – often stored online. Wireless technology promises this kind of freedom. ‘It effectively means you carry your desk around, perhaps through hand-held devices providing phone and computer links,’ says Devoy.
This will be the next big IT revolution in offices, and forward-thinking developers are already making plans. The wireless building will still need wires, carrying signals to local nodes. Yet again, this means providing the space and advanced thinking to cope with new systems, as refitting buildings to meet this advance will be expensive.