How important is presence?

How important is presence? Is it slowly losing importance in work-life contexts? Or is workplace design irrelevant to the development of organizational knowledge? These are complex and related issues that this essay has attempted to address, but which require further discussion.

Attempting to conclude the discussions so far, two scenarios can finally be drafted. In the first, co-presence between workers is considered crucial for knowledge exchange and the production of organizational knowledge. Such a co-presence scenario will, I argue, require support from innovative workplace design, informed by presence design to enable mediated interaction and based on the concept of witnessed mediated presence.

A second, more dystopian office scenario, which however also is likely, is considered by assuming that organizations rely more on individual contribution than on forms of collaboration that require interaction. In such a scenario—which I label no-presence scenario—information exchange between workers is supported by different media and communication tools, but it is of less importance to gather staff in the workplace. In consequence, the office loses its capacity as a site for collaboration and knowledge exchange. Rather, the office risks to become a site for storage while the parallel development of mobile technical devices enable workers to contribute their individual share from remote locations—collaboration in its most basic form, supported by mere information exchange.

Without a genuine need for knowledge sharing or human interaction as part of the collaboration, the benefits in sharing spaces with others at work remain vague and related to either economical (less space per worker) or social measures (particularly in case of routine work). Given the choice, it is likely that many workers will choose an individual office cell before an open plan workspace—arguing the need for seclusion rather than presence—or opt for the possibility, at least sometimes, to just work remotely from home.[34] There is a great risk that the office, as we know it, has become redundant, hence my challenge to fellow architects to engage in presence design.

Presence design is architecture.

Note 34: Discussing future trends, Koprowski (2000) argues that workplace flexibility is more important than job stability, salary, holiday time and benefits. Flexibility is often perceived as a status symbol. Similarly, Challenger writes: ‘Driven by employee demand for more-flexible scheduling, telecommuting will be the predominant workplace trend in the new millennium’ (Challenger 2000: 38). The above is supported by a user study aiming to define the drivers and barriers for teleworking in Sweden and Italy conducted by Ericsson AB. It asserts that in Sweden, an office worker expects a certain amount of teleworking, as part of the job, partly because the job requires an involvement beyond what can be achieved within a fixed number of working hours, partly because employees enjoy the freedom of structuring their own work time. In contrast, Italian white collar workers do not assume teleworking is offered in the job. It is regarded ‘an exclusive option, primarily for those who are in more senior positions and have shown their employer that they can be trusted’. (Ericsson 2008).