Principals and administrative staff who retired 50 years ago probably could return to most of today's school offices, and all they would ask is what are those funny little TV screens doing where typewriters ought to be. No doubt people have moved "in" and "out" boxes around, experimented with horizontal vs. vertical sign-in/sign-out sheets, and relocated the occasional table to provide better access to morning donuts. Otherwise, today's office looks pretty much the same.
Americans are very caught up in tradition. It's hard to think outside the box because they have spent most of their time inside that box. The educational office is a great example. When planning a new or renovated education facility, schools tend to count the number of people and plan from there — because that's the way they always have done it. The technology tools that are available have had little, if any, effect on office planning or design. Research tells us that 70 percent of office work is collaborative, and 30 percent done individually. The modern office was conceived when that ratio was reversed — yet the layout and design have remained virtually the same.
A changing environment
The office environment 10 years from now will be different from the one today. More office personnel will be organized around processes rather than functions. More work activities will be done by teams rather than individuals, and those teams will change over time, as will the nature of the work projects and the people who constitute the team.
But what about the traditional need for privacy to think and create? That too, will be part of the office of the future. There has to be space for people to retreat from those teams to individual work areas. It also will be necessary to have confidential conversations with a small number of students, parents or law-enforcement officials. School administrators might consider how modern thinking — and modern technology — influences how office space is laid out and managed. Office spaces will need tremendous flexibility to allow for continual reconfiguration.
The goal in a futuristic office design should be to provide efficient space. One of the most difficult factors in office design is how to incorporate emerging technologies. Today, instead of just ensuring the usual electrical, lighting, HVAC and power requirements, the office also must provide a robust data network and communications technology for every workspace. Laptops, Wi-Fi and smartphones signify that high-tech office workers no longer are tethered to their desks. The main goal of tomorrow's office will be to help workers capture and organize information more easily and efficiently. These changes in technology for the office space are exciting because it makes institutions look at the office and at "work" from a new vantage point.
Many administrative staffs think they can't do much about the actual footprint of the school office area — or can they? A small renovation of existing space can provide a landscape area for waiting, reception and clerical staff, with smaller private offices and conference spaces nearby. Consider the things that take up office space today: file cabinets for document and information storage.
Digital is the future, so endless file cabinets can be eliminated by using a digital document machine. The machine works when a person puts a document of text or graphics into the machine and it makes a digital snapshot of the document that can be edited, faxed, photocopied or transmitted to any number of people via a network or the Internet. Then it can be stored as a digital image.
Drowning in paperwork and files? What school isn't these days? Software programs can digitize an entire school's activities to streamline operations. The software has modules for creating class schedules, tracking grades and attendance, and even an extensive section on discipline.
More schools and universities are going paperless. The less-paper office is a goal obstructed by both physical and psychological barriers, but slowly those barriers are falling. However, the reality of going virtual requires a responsible IT department with the capability of daily backups. With the price of hard-drive space and servers lower than ever, paperless is the wave of the future.
Technology itself is causing office design to evolve. Keep in mind that all high-tech tools of the future eventually will work together and be linked to and controlled by a computer. Therefore, avoid thinking of electronic equipment as standalone instruments.
Touchscreen tablet PCs, for example, might provide a vast improvement to having a sign-in sheet on a clipboard. Such a system could print legible nametags for visitors, and automatically note when they sign in or out. Creating a searchable, electronic record of school visitors also enhances building security.
The office future
Video teleconferencing at the office level is a fast-growing technology. With the initial cost of the unit and either an LCD screen or a data projector in a conference room, a video teleconferencing system enables faculty and staff to collaborate with other faculty and staff anywhere in the world via the Internet. The most persuasive selling point for this technology is the savings in travel time and cost.
One more essential tool is a pop-up device in the conference room table that enables laptops to be plugged in, and provides power, data and VGA connections so that the laptop display can be shown on a display device in the conference room.
Don't overlook the phone. If you need to buy a new phone system, a digital solution is the way to go. Consider leasing, which sets a fixed life for office equipment, forcing schools to evaluate new capabilities periodically. Aim for as short a lease contract as possible. Another reason for short contracts is that the day is rapidly approaching when land lines will give way to cellular.
Office innovation is about to take another leap. Wireless communication tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated. These unobtrusive, portable tools are expected to combine the functions of multiple pieces of hardware — such as personal computer, phone, fax, scanner, electronic organizer or camera — into a single device. School administrators will use them to participate in videoconferences; check e-mail; return calls; upload and download documents; distribute reports; collaborate on projects; conduct research; schedule virtual meetings; scan printed documents or images; and send or receive text, audio and video.
Some common questions administrators should consider before upgrading office space:
Are there office tasks that can be accelerated or done less wastefully by using technology?
Are there additional benefits, such as automated recordkeeping, that can be accomplished more productively via technology?
What linkages between different pieces of technological equipment might save time, money, human resources, or produce additional benefits?
How can resources be best allocated to gain the most from new or upgraded technologies?
There's a lot administrators need to consider before creating an office for the future. It can't be accomplished in one step. But, at the very least they must plan for improvements in a unified way. Planning must be coordinated so that all the pieces work as a team. Recognize that tomorrow's technology also will change. The best an administrator can do is plan three to five years into the future. But that's better than not planning at all.
How has your school office changed over the years? Let us know by commenting on this article.