The New, New Way to Office

office.gifLost in the noise of sky-rocketing energy prices, data on the business downturn, and the start of an uncertain summer was news last week that Fedex Kinkos--that hybrid of the world's largest delivery company and your corner copy shop--is changing its name to Fedex Office. According to the company, losing the quirky Kinko's brand reflects a recognition that the company provides more than just copies, delivery and office supplies, and has become, as a company spokesman called it, "...a back office for small businesses and a branch office for medium to large businesses and mobile professionals.''

The name change does indeed reflect the company's true role, albeit about 5 years too late, that Fedex Kinkos is part of the invisible ecosystem of work, alongside Panera, Starbucks, Homewood Suites, Avis and many other scattered pieces of the emerging platform that includes airlines, mobile operators, office supply stores, restaurants, bookstores, and anywhere else today's fluid workers find refuge. It's no longer enough to talk about mobile work, which implies a clear break from "fixed" or in-office work, as a distinct area. As the economy has increasingly shifted toward part-time, contract, service-based work spread over a larger number of "workers," this ideal of the road warrior has really in effect morphed into the work-lifer, for whom  professional work, community activities and private family life are all just interstitial moments, blurred together.

But back to today's headlines and the rebranding of Fedex Office, and the convergence of these two factors presents an interesting opportunity. As the economist Paul Krugman recently pointed out, we are increasingly stranded in suburbia by a combination of high energy prices. I would extend this to add clogged infrastructure and the emerging work-life economy to say we may be reaching an important inflection point where we are increasingly dependent on locally focused, cellular communities of work, constrained by energy costs and inability to move, reliant less and less on the eroding prospects of a traditional work pattern and more and more on local resources and intellectual capital of other professionals nearby--sort of a resilient co-working model.

What are the implications for the companies in the invisible ecosystem described above? For one, Fedex Office should clear out some of those jumbo copiers, or buy out next door's failing coffee shop, and open co-working centers (with childcare) to service the millions of work-lifers who are or will be stranded close by. In the next few years we are bound to see a large part of the workforce who are not able to afford to drive their regional sales territory or make the hour commute to an office or afford assistance at home (hence the childcare), but who want to be connected to each other and need a place to be productive and networked that isn't a coffee shop.

Companies should recognize they are part of this ecosystem and begin to integrate it to provide better, more seamless value to their common users. A few laptop carrels stuck in the corner with a $5-a-minute charge for access won't do it any more. Prepare for the exodus of the modern workforce to the suburbs and actually become the new way to office.