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How Apple is Helping Microsoft

When I started working, decades ago, the work place comprised of cabins and cubicles. The senior managers occupied cubicles and us, lower rungs, sat around in cubicles.

One took an appointment to meet one’s boss, because the doors were made of wood or had frosted glass thus not knowing if she, or he, would be busy. Similarly when the boss wanted to talk to you, he had to send his secretary out looking for you, or he came himself.

As you can imagine it was an office with ‘formality’.

Yet a lot of physical activity. Walking to and fro from cabins and cubicles. This movement created a sense of motion in the office and more importantly you met colleagues as they were walking the corridor. That gave opportunity for conversation, office gossip and a few laughs. Many a friend I have made in those years.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago with the emergence of  the open office. Except the head of office or the managing director, everyone sat in full view of the rest. Even the 2 – 3 cabins that existed seldom had floor to ceiling walls and the doors were always simple see through glass. This created a new dynamic. A visible office. You saw your team mates. Other colleagues. If you wanted to see if a specific person was in her/his seat all you needed to do was stand up and spot the head.

And then use the phone. Or shout across the hall.  Sometimes conversations would be conducted in this manner. This invariably got some smart aleck remarks too. In addition to the visible, it also was the noisy office.

Irrespective of the office type there was an energy in the office.

Fast forward to today. We are still in the open office mode. (My current office is as open as can be. We don’t even have partitions separating two work spaces). But what’s happened is that we now have silent offices. There is very little cross office conversation. Barely anyone walks around either.

What you do see however is that nearly everyone has two wires sticking out of their ears. Yes the ipod. It’s changed everything. Everyone has one. Maybe 2 or 3. When they are at their work station they are plugged into the network as much as the ipod. And that has completely changed the dynamics of the workplace. Not much walking. Not much talking.

Silence reigns. (Here I refer to advertising agencies where the change has been dramatic. I find client organisations have been like this for pretty much all the time that I remember visiting them. Their offices have also physically changed to the open office. But the silence has always been there.)

Even if one called out to a person you wouldn’t get a response. I am a ‘walk up to the person’ kind of person. Not a shout across the hall type. And even I find, that it is not just enough to walk up to the person, you need to even tap the shoulder.

What I have seen growing alarmingly in the work space now is Instant Messaging. And here I mean people chatting with their colleague sitting a few spots away or even across them. It saves the walk. It guarantees attention, as you cannot ignore the flashing blue tab in the bottom of your screen.

If you have an ipod IM becomes your prefered mode of communication. And given MSNs dominance in this space, Apple is basically helping Microsoft grow. I imagine the two Steves have frequent laughs over this.

As more people move to communicating via IM, the less conversations will we see. And ideas come out of conversations.

Will one day companies have to ask people to turn off their ipods like you turn off your phones on a flight? The phones go off for the safety of the plane. Will ipods need to go off for the safety of the organisation?


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