Stories that never ran: the Philadelphia workplace in five years

More than a year ago, I handled a half dozen interviews and a couple rewrites on a story for the Inquirer that covered what Philadelphia workplaces will look like in the future. As is sometimes the case, it never found its home in print.

The story’s primary timeliness has been lost, but I think it still has merit. So, with permission from my editor, I share it below, in addition to a slew of extras from the heavy lifting of reporting.

It was meant to be a localized version of a Time magazine cover story that caught my attention.

Below, read the story, see portions of my interviews that didn’t make it into the piece and watch some related video news pieces

*Please note that the facts, figures, quotations and assertions are fact-checked and correct as of June 2009.

THE FUTURE OF THE PHILADELPHIA WORK PLACE

Not that long ago, there was something of a stable existence in retail.

Sheldon Abba

Sheldon Abba worked in a variety of clothing stores, from independent storefronts to big players like Urban Outfitters. He had a marketing and design background and, he thought, a fairly good sense of his future.

And then the bottom fell out.

With the economy on the slide, he was let go from Walnut Street-retailer Stussy in February, and his perception of that future changed.

“When I was in school, I thought I’d get a steady job with a brand and get a regular paycheck,” Abba, 23, said. “When that job evaporated, I started thinking differently. Maybe I could pay bills doing something like it on my own.”

So, with a handful of friends, he launched S. Industries, an ethereal design and retail company that is based wherever Abba and his cohorts are at the moment. He’s finding steady work through word of mouth but will soon take the venture on the Web through an e-commerce site. It’s a far ride from clocking in as a retail day manager.

The U.S. recession has changed lots of plans, like Abba’s. While entrepreneurs, freelancers and telecommuters have long been part of the U.S. workforce, today’s economic climate seems to have put more people in those roles than in recent memory. So much so that some say independent, remote ventures like Abba’s S. Industries are part of a trend for the future of the nation’s workplace.

That trend may fast become a norm in Philadelphia and across the country in the next five years or more, said Thomas Malone, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor and author of the 2004 book, The Future of Work. Those who do stick to cubicle life may find their offices becoming smaller, closer to home, more mobile and, believe it or not, more fun in coming years, other experts say — all thanks to advances in communication technologies and increasingly casual work environments.

“The key message here is that I think we are in the early stages of an increase in human freedom in work, and it just might be as important a change for business as democracy was for government,” Malone said.

Some worry that the expected continued decline in traditional office employees could leave the new worker short on camaraderie and political social skills.

To curb his isolation, though, Abba has launched his venture with friends. They hold their meetings in bedrooms with a computer and a hard drive, listening to music and laughing.

“That’s a different work environment than any work place,” Abba says. “What I’m doing — finding work and making a schedule — is really valuable learning.”

For those who work from home for established companies, there’s another trend in keeping the best of the office: co-working.

For more than four years, Lori Hylan-Cho worked for software companies in California from 2,800 miles away in her Logan Square home near the Philadelphia Art Museum. The software developer and mom, whose hair is not unknown to be dyed purple on occasion, relished the flexibility but lamented the solitude.

“I was going a little nutty,” she said.

So, after making “a New Year’s resolution to get out of the house,” Hylan-Cho rented out space at Independents Hall, a shared office in Old City that rents workplaces to self-employed or other independent workers.

“In the coming years, the place becomes less important than the tools, and managers become more comfortable with distribution,” said Alex Hillman, a freelance Web developer who in 2006 opened Indy Hall with University of the Arts professor Geoff DiMassi. “Companies that want to stay ahead of the curve — if they’re open-minded — will need to explore these options in the traditional worker-employer relationship.”

Hylan-Cho, 40, has worked in software development for 11 years and has watched more and more of her co-workers flee the office.

“Working from home let me put in a load of laundry, be home for packages and sometimes meet the kids for lunch,” she said. She kept in touch with work by way of regular video conferences and instant messaging, connecting with co-workers from California to Texas back to Philadelphia.

That extra freedom kept her loyal, one of the more valuable assets of an employee in the future.

“Businesses are quickly finding that one of the most expensive costs of business is turnover,” said Deanna Geddes, an assistant professor of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. So, the Center City office of the future may increasingly be a more inviting place.

Geddes says we might see the rise of the campus workplace for those who, unlike Abba and Hylan-Cho, do stay in the office.

“What successful businesses like Google learned before a lot of others is that people like to hang out, where they can develop friends, and when you have friendships in the workplace, people want to stay,” she said. “The casual campus environment that is more open, with fewer doors and walls, more communal space, games and less restrictive hours, lets people come and go as they please and keeps them invested in the workplace.”

For those who have already left traditional work environments, voluntarily or because of a tightened economy, the recession seems to point work places in a new direction.

“It takes a special kind of person, someone who can separate time and get work done,” Abba said. “That isn’t everyone, but clearly even the old-style offices of the past are going to change.”

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Professor Thomas Malone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • “We’ll see the economic benefits of very large business, as the same time as the human benefit of very small organizations, the freedom and creativity.”
  • “The reason, of course, is a completely new generation of technologies that are reducing the cost of communication to such a low level. A huge number of people can now make sensible decisions for themselves with access to enough information because of the Internet, instead of just following orders.
  • “We’ll see more human freedom, more people making more decisions for themselves. We may see more small organizations, where you’re your own boss.”
  • A lot of lessons about that future can be taken from the nation’s largest private employer and an online auction behemoth, Malone said. Increasingly, we won’t need or always be able to find a company to employ us.
    “The clerk in Walmart and that seller for eBay represent the difference in what is now and what may come: in how they work, in responsibilities and where and when they have to do them,” Malone said. “Seven hundred thousand people say they make their primary or secondary living on eBay. They are essentially independent store owners with a huge amount of freedom in what they do, what to sell and what prices to set. That’s the future.”
  • “Even inside big companies, we’ll see more freedom inside the company, more command and control to coordinate and cultivate. In another meaning of freedom, there will be more choice of when or where they work, with telecommuting for example, we’ll see a decentralization of the workplace. Both of those results are enabled by cheap communication….
  • One reason cities grew the way they did was that for many occupations you had to live in a city, near the office to the company you worked for. One of the important trends changed by cheap communication technology is that more and more kinds of work can be done essentially anywhere in the world. What that means, I think, is that people will choose where they live often for reasons other than where their company is because it won’t matter. What that means is the dynamics of cities, i think will change. There are a lot of nice things about living in cities other than just going to work there. So, some people will continue to want to work in cities even though their jobs don’t require them to do so. It’s hard to know what the net impact on a city like Philadelphia will be, but I expect the population of cities may lessen but that the quality of living will go up.
  • “The key point is electronic communication is reducing the need to travel to work everyday. You can work at home or near home much of the time. Ten years ago, we used to think that more and more people would become telecommuters. I think that’s not nearly so black and white now. The vast majority of professionals will be telecommuters in the sense that they work some of the time from home or while traveling and surely the professionals who spend all the time working from the office are a minority, but we’ll see a hybrid of office and telecommuting time.
  • “If you need an example of a future employee, look at an eBay seller. If those 700,000 people were employees, it would make eBay the second-largest private employer in the country, second only behind Walmart. Of course, they are not employees… That’s all the freedom of any small store owner. It’s on a scale unlike ever before, in any regional or global marketplace. It’s as if an auction company built a retailer — not eBay the company, but eBay the community.
  • “In cities, there is a pretty strong division between business and residential neighborhoods. Maybe we’ll see more of a blurring of these distinctions,” Malone, the MIT professor, said. “I think when people don’t have to drive or commute all the way to a downtown of a city, that means they could stay at home. We’ll see more of something I call a neighborhood office building.”It would be a place, Malone said, where telecommuters and freelancers, whose numbers are expected to rise, can work together. It’s a trend called co-working that already has strong roots in Philadelphia.
  • ; residential neighborhoods with one or two or more office floors

Professor, Deanna Geddes, human resource management at Temple’s Fox School of Business

  • This is a time to play to our strengths as a region. research and biotech, biomedic
  • Companies without the sophisticated IT for corporate to retain employees may suffer.
  • We might see more choice, allowing younger people to come in at 10 a.m. and work through 8 or stay on to 9.
  • Center City could become the place for more campus-orientated workplaces. It’s cheaper to build out of the existing city.
  • Taking a mantra from education in 1990s, clicks not bricks. We don’t need all the institutions.
  • Work flexibility will be key.
  • More and more employees are looking for flexibility. work-life issues and boredom go even further.
  • There’s nothing more valuable than a good idea.
  • More people want a job that first their lifestyle,  not just someplace to punch a time card.”
  • “There will always be a place for corporate headquarters. They may change, get smaller and more casual, but they won’t go away entirely.”
  • “There will always be a place for the cubicle jungle,” Geddes, the Temple professor, said. “But we won’t go as much and might not have to travel as far.”

Web designer Alex Hillman, co-founder of Independents Hall

  • “What happens when a company is based outside the city, and the employee lives outside the city, but they come to the city to work in a physical space, like a coffee shop or sitting in a park using Wi Fi?” Place starts to breakdown.
  • “The risk is low, as it’s a fairly cheap big city. There are a lot of industries and for so long Philly has just been a good place to try new things. It’s in our city’s history.”
  • “With some trust for telecommuting or greater freedom and be valuable to the long-term relationship.
  • “People react to distractions differently, but ultimately being completely isolated can’t be healthy,” said Hillman. “A combination of factors affect the distribution of the workplace.”
  • In 2006, Alex Hillman, a freelance Web developer who caught cabin fever from too many lonely work sessions at home, and Geoff DiMassi, a University of the Arts professor, opened Indy Hall.
  • See Technically Philly coverage of Alex Hillman.

Software engineer Lori Hylan-Cho, telecommuter and Indy Hall member

  • “Ditching the commute is a big thing. It’s not just that you’re stuck in traffic or on a train, but you’re not with a family. could productive worrk time, but not family time.”
  • It was awesome. But it puts a strain on communication. You have to be a very active communicator. You have to make sure you’re around.”
  • “I’m used to working with a lot of men, certainly in technical positions,” she said.
  • The worst recession in a generation or more has brought on a slew of attention to the future of business and our friendly workplace confines. In the view of some experts, the Web-literate telecommuter is a sign of things to come.
  • It’s invaluable for life balance, as you have kids, your job can be more portable giving you a chance to be with your family.”
  • “It was a great way to have a job that I love and live where I want to live,” Hylan-Cho, 40, said.
  • So, if Hylan-Cho lands another gig that brings her to an office, she might meet with colleagues there for regular meetings, if not traditional full days. Still, she said it’ll be hard to give up the flexibility she’s had for the past few years.
  • But, she now no longer telecommutes for that California company. In fact, she says she might look for another chance at the collaboration of a traditional office.
  • “I don’t know if it’s the future,” Hylan-Cho said. “But it’s worked well for me.”

Helpful U.S. Census Bureau of Labor Statistics information for Philadelphia employment:

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