The Office of the Future

| June 30, 2013

iStock_000006476620smallOn June 30, 1975, a prophetic article appeared in Business Week Magazine entitled “The Office of the Future.”  The article accurately predicted and explained how a new wave of technology would revolutionize how offices work.  “There will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on [my] desk. I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button … I can get my mail or any messages *** [T]he office of the future is a collection of these electronic terminals linked to each other and to electronic filing cabinets”

While the changes predicted in the article took longer to occur than expected (“by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic”) they did arrive.  So, with technology changing so fast, where is the office of the future headed next?   Here are four alternative looks towards tomorrow that are being touted today:

The Virtual Office Will Become The Norm.  OfficeTeam, a leading office staffing service, released a research study entitled Office of the Future: 2020 based on surveys and interviews with workplace and technology experts, futurists, trend watchers, and executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest companies.  Their study predicts that the future office will be increasingly mobile and flexible.  Employees will be working from diverse locations — from home offices to temporary business spaces to cafés. Increasingly, companies will depend on temporary, instant “plug and play” offices that can be established wherever needed.  The concept of going to work will be redefined as employees use portable, wireless tools to communicate from any location, and to join virtual meetings. Business will invest in technology and reduce their spending on traditional overhead expenses such as leases, property taxes and facilities maintenance.

The Gathering Space is Irreplaceable.  While some tout the value of telecommuting, others see it as already a thing of the past.  Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently made business headlines when she effectively ended the work-at-home option for Yahoo employees. Best Buy has followed suit, terminating its “Results Only Work Environment” that was enacted in 2005 to great fanfare.

These companies see the office as a gathering space that cannot be replaced by virtual communication.  In her memo to company employees, Mayer wrote: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

If so, offices will be increasingly designed to facilitate comfortable and cooperative meetings among employees.  The cubicle (whose sales peaked in 2000 and have been falling ever since) will be replaced by open spaces and “work lounges” that make it easier for employees to hold informal meetings to work together and share ideas. The concept of “emotional intelligence” will grow in prominence. This phrase refers to those skills and abilities that enable people to interact well with those around them, respond to others’ needs and priorities, and adapt to a rapidly changing business environment.

Technology Dictates that the Future is Now.  As technology increases at an ever faster pace, it will dictate the direction of the future office.  The Whiteboard and dry markers are already being replaced by an electronic version.  A workspace dedicated to on-line conferencing  (a “wormhole”) will allow for a quick video chat when a telephone call or e-mail won’t quite do.  Virtual meetings technology will improve so quickly that it will become a must.

Corbin Ball, a leading business planner and an advocate for meeting technology, described a hybrid meeting at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York recently.  He looked across his table at a high-definition virtual wall (a screen that projected images of people who were attending remotely) and it looked like they were sitting right across the table from him.  Ball said  “Remember the classic scene in the movie ‘Star Wars’ where R2D2 projects the shimmering image of Princess Leia? We are way beyond that technology right now.”

The Power of Isolation. An alternative view is laid out by Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Ms. Cain’s position is summarized in an op-ed piece she wrote for the New York Times.  She argues that people work more creatively when “they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” She also points out that the most creative people in many fields are introverts who are “extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”  Read more

Ms. Cain’s research strongly suggests that the most productive people are extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. Solitude is a catalyst to their innovation.   If so, the best office of the future will allow for quiet, concentrated, and individual work.

Conclusion. Doubtless, the “Office of the Future” will combine the best aspects of each of these competing visions.  Most importantly, technology will allow each company to create an office environment that is right for it.

There is just one thing everyone seems to agree on:  Executives and staff will be working just as long and as hard as today, or maybe even longer and harder.  All the innovation still has not changed the ancient wisdom that He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who pursues worthless things lacks sense (Proverbs 12: 11); and In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. (Proverbs 14: 23).



Category: Technology