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#interview

The Office of the Future? A Space That Doesn’t Look Like an Office Space

Article April 30, 2019  |  Text by Lukáš Rozmajzl Text by Lukáš Rozmajzl

Why will English decline as an international business language? Who should design collaborative spaces? Why are office desks getting smaller? Read on to check out our interview with Rainer Bogner, Lead Country Manager at ExxonMobil BSC Czechia.

“It’s interesting to see how technology creeps into every detail. From the motion sensor to face recognition and other hi-tech things, that will determine our office environment,” predicts Rainer Bogner.

Let’s start with some word associations. What’s the first thing you think of when I say:

Email?

Work.

Reception?

Business card.

Weekend?

Family.

Working from home?

Flexibility.

Mobile phone?

Daily needs.

Pencil?

Still in use.

Meeting room?

Collaboration.

Prague?

Fantastic.

Let’s move on and talk about the office environment. What are the current trends that you can see in the design process for new workplaces?

I believe that over the last 15 years, the open space has become a commodity. If you think about future, we can go back and say: What did we change when we went from individual offices and small group offices to open spaces? It was a revolution. Now everybody uses open spaces. It is an industry standard.

If you extend this into the future, I believe we will have more open spaces, more collaborative spaces, spaces that don’t look like office spaces at all. There will be a bit of a lifestyle element to it.

So, it might look like a cafeteria or a living room?

I’d call it a gamer’s den or something like that. Where you have a football table or where you can go out for a walk and clear your head.

The era of manual, repetitive work is coming to an end. The workflow of copy-pasting to bring information from here to there manually is going to disappear over the next five years. We are seeing a greater and greater transition from manual work into more intellectual work and stepping-over from the manual world into digitalization.

When you think this one through, the whole need for manual work will change. How would we set up a creative corner or an intellectual corner within an office? And that goes hand in hand with our need to adapt our working environment.

Because you believe that creative work needs creative spaces?

That’s how it is. It requires slightly different thinking on how to collaborate. I believe that design work, project work, the creative part of our thinking is the way forward when manual work goes away.

You need to accompany this one with a change in your answer to “What can we offer our employees?” The battle for talents is very fierce and young people have high expectations: “What should my work environment deliver?” The workmates and the social environment you have at the company are a major part, but it’s also about things like the right hardware or, let’s say, the right color of your desk.

So, the office should be designed by employees and not designers or architects?

It’s at the kind of level where, even if you can’ have democracy in everything, you very much rely on people for your inputs. You can’t please everyone. So, there’s always a compromise you need to make. But at least you give everyone rights to speak up and ask them: Let me know what you see, what I can’t see. Young people appreciate it. I believe this will lead us to something that’s more collaborative, more open. That might even end up as something comparable to a a hotel lobby, or something like that.

VIRTUAL MEETING

Don’t you believe in those visions of the future that we’ will be working in virtual reality with remote workers connected together only via headsets for VR or videoconferences?

It will come… but not over the next 5 to 10 years. Videoconferencing is a good technology, but it has its limitations. We need to be careful not to be too intrusive towards private needs. How comfortable would you feel if somebody sees you in your pyjamas at a teleconference?

If you’re having one people from about the same time zones, that’s fine, it’s very effective. Although not everyone feels comfortable with this remote and slightly sterile way of working.

I personally believe in idea-sharing, in passing things over… Where you hand a paper to your workmate and ask: “Look at it. What do you think?”

Does it mean you see the main purpose of the workplace in creating an environment where people can physically meet and share their ideas?

Yes, but also one where they stay connected online. If you want to reach out to people, it’s a good opportunity to see that person’s face. If you can’t do it in person, at least you get a visual sensation.

We need to use the type of communication that fits. I’ve just come back from the Asia Pacific region and the customers there do not like emails. If you’ve got something, please call me or send me an IM, but don’t email me! It’s very much up to different cultures’ preferences what you do and how efficient it is.

Speaking of technology, is that something that you see as a strong part of the smart office?

Very much so. What we’re working on right now is speech recognition. The reason why I’m not speaking to you in Czech is because I don’t speak Czech. So, we have to compromise on a language where we all feel comfortable. How about you speak in any language you want, and it’s translated into whatever language via speech recognition?

If you overcome the hurdle of communication languages that opens up a whole new universe of interaction. It’s something we’re working on here to make things a little bit easier.

That’s going to come, it’s just a question of time—and I strongly believe it will be within the next five years.

Do you think English as a universal business language will be less and less important?

I believe so, but you always need to have a backup. When you go to set up a video conference and for whatever reason, it’s just not going to work, English will remain the fallback position.

Over time it will not be as important to have good English to go out and communicate with the rest of the world.

TWO ADDRESSES

Right now we’re sitting in an office building that’s situated next to one of the largest shopping malls in Prague. What are the pros and cons of that?

ExxonMobil operates in two locations in Prague. We have about 650 people in Luxembourg Plaza offices, and the same amount on the other side of the same street, at the Flora building.

The benefit of these locations is they are very close to every type of transport. You have metro, you have trams and you have road connections that are very good. You have a parking garage here, so you’re pretty flexible with mobility.

And the negative aspects?

The disadvantage is clearly the amount of other traffic it’s generating. Having plenty of people also means other challenges, the need for greater security, etc.

There’s always an easy solution to the problem of splitting one company into two locations—what about moving to a new address?

The clear wish is to have one organization in one building. That makes collaboration much nicer. I wouldn’t be late for a meeting because of transferring from this building to another. (laugh) It would be much more convenient, because if it’s cold and icy and rainy and hot and whatever, it’s always a bit of an issue to walk from one building to the other, even when the distance is only 50 meters.

PAPER WAS EVERYWHERE

Am I right that you started working for ExxonMobil in 1986?

A long time ago…

When you compare your first desk to your current desk, what’s the biggest difference?

My first desk when I joined the company was big. It was really big. At minimum about two meters by one meter. Office desks have gotten smaller but don’t forget that at that time, you had tons of paper! How full our filing cabinets were! You don’t need most of those cabinets anymore. All the documents are electronic.

You also needed a huge desk because of the big and heavy PC, right?

There weren’t PCs at that time. There were only telephones and typewriters, which tells you how old I am (smile) or how quickly technology has developed. I was the first one in the company to get a PC. Not a laptop; laptops hadn’t been invented yet. Not with a flat screen, but a 20-kilogram TV-style thing!