PHONEBOOTHS & MAILBOXES

The phonebooth and the mailbox represent a landscape and way of life now transformed by technology.

Landscapes Transformed

The working subtitle of this paper is “Phonebooths and Mailboxes,” chosen because both were once a common element in the urban landscape. Both are now becoming obsolete or redundant due to the ubiquity of mobile phones and e-mail—superseded by new technology. I’ve always liked the bright red British telephone booth and the image of American college kids stuffing themselves into a booth as a prank. And once upon a time, people wrote lengthy letters and each day’s post was an event of some importance. Happily, the iconic British phonebooth— as much a symbol of Britain as fish and chips—is now finding new life as a charging station or connectivity booth or even a village “library kiosk.”

With the advent of “always on” gadgets, however, we can connect at any time with people anywhere, which has far-reaching implications for the way people work and the way companies do business. How will people work tomorrow and the day after?[1]

Why put pen to paper when you can text? Who needs a booth when your phone is in your pocket? And why drive into the office when you can email? Technology allows one to be connected to colleagues without ever seeing them—or does it?

Discovering a New Workforce Paradigm

Our purpose here is to ask and potentially answer some questions about the communications technology that is so intimately woven into our lives—and its consequences for our life at work. At one time, most interactions were with people in the same building and exchanges took place synchronously either face-to-face or via telephone.

Is the office where we do our best thinking? Perhaps you have asked, “When and where did my last great idea come to me—in the office, on a run or just after midnight while working at home? I rarely hear, “It came to me in a meeting.” But I often hear, “I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to share it.” Light bulb moments may not happen in the office, but perhaps that’s where they come to life.

My last “big idea” came to me on a plane and that seems to happen more often than not. On a long flight, I enjoy hours of uninterrupted solitude. I receive no phone calls, e-mails or dropby visitors (except those bringing food and drink, who are welcome). It is a great place to think and reflect. Recently however, I boarded an Air Canada flight and to my horror saw an emblem on the outside of the plane that read. “Now Wi-Fienabled.” Just as we spend less time “unplugged,” we may be running out of places to think.

The question inevitably arises, if we can connect anywhere, anytime, is the office the best place to work?

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Phonebooths and Mailboxes is a discussion about new technologies. Consider how quickly the cell phone replaced the pager, how quickly the fax machine was replaced by email. Mobile technology now signals one of the biggest transformations within the modern office.

Shifts in work-styles have been, and will continue to be, so monumental that we had to ask the question: Is the office going the way of the phonebooth and the mailbox.

Ultimately, the goal of Phonebooths and Mailboxes is to help organizations create an engaging and adaptable workplace, one that fosters a lively, collegial culture, with a greater level of innovation. Perhaps ideally, a place where people forget they are “at work” and experience a rewarding, creative, intellectual and social life.