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Martin Pawley: information out of control

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For the last 20 years the cry in architecture has been, 'Clear the way for information!' The results are everywhere in the shape of increased floor heights, air-conditioning, false ceilings, raised floors, enormous risers and so on. But now a sudden reversal seems to be taking everyone by surprise, even though the cause is common knowledge.

Everyone who works in an office knows that work is something you have to do out-of-hours, because in office hours you are required to deal with information. The problem is ancient, but nowadays electronic office equipment makes it is so easy to send a message that everyone, from rocket scientists to checkout persons, have to be taught to restrain their urge to communicate. Even then, the emerging scale of the problem suggests that such education may be useless. According to a study recently carried out by office equipment manufacturer Pitney Bowes, the average American office worker now deals with 190 messages a day in the form of 52 telephone calls, 48 e-mails, 22 voice mails, 21 letters, 15 faxes, 11 post-it stickers, 10 telephone messages, four written notes, four overnight delivery packages and three cellular telephone calls.

Pitney Bowes describes this avalanche of distraction as 'highly disruptive', but that is surely too circumspect. University of Chicago researcher Carstairs McKillop, in the throes of his own study of information overload, has no hesitation in going further: 'We have all gotten used to thinking that the biggest threat to employment comes from automation,' he says. 'But now it looks as though we have been wrong. Automation has peaked out. The big threat to jobs now comes from non-task-related information, and that is mushrooming because exactly those employers who slimmed down and informationalised their workforce in the 1980s and 90s without regard to the disruptive effects of uncontrolled information, are now finding that their skeleton staffs either can't do the job, or burn themselves out trying. Hiring more people doesn't help because it simply generates more disruptive information. Unless something is done, nine-to-five as we know it will become untenable.'

McKillop claims that declining employee efficiency is hitting the new purpose-built call centres like a tropical disease. In these massively informationalised structures, 1000 or 2000 employees with open access to tfe (telephone, fax and e-mail), may require almost as many supervisors to restrain the disruptive effect of their urge to inform and be informed.

What can be done? Surprisingly, the survival model cited by McKillop is the one adopted by Microsoft years ago when it was still a small firm. Then Bill Gates commissioned Seattle architect Gerry Gerron to design the original star-shaped hq complex. Gates wanted symmetrical buildings hidden among trees and landscaped like a university campus, with everybody in their own office, all the same size: nine feet by twelve feet by eight feet high. The way he saw the future of Microsoft at that time, 42,000m2 of these cubicles, plus parking for 1700 cars, would provide expansion space for the firm for ten years. How wrong he was.

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