The Office of the Future – What Will it Look Like?
29th June 2016
Jonathon Seddon, director at Nottingham’s NG Chartered Surveyors, looks at the future of the office workplace – what will it hold?
The author and acknowledged future visionary Arthur C Clarke said:-
“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between two stools. If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that within 20 or at most 50 years the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everybody would laugh him to scorn.”
I’m going to put down a marker and have a stab at predicting the officfuture. Not the distant future of jet powered flying cars that were predicted in the 50’s, but a near future that’s just round the corner. I’m going to paint a picture of the office environment in 10 or possibly even only 5 years from now.
My thinking has been shaped by an American called Gordon Moore who, in 1965, predicted (and I’m paraphrasing now) that computers would double in power every year. He was broadly right – computers and the technology that drives them have developed at a frightening pace. But before I go Back to the Future (clever eh?), I think it’s interesting to look backwards first.
I started work in the early 90s for a large retail company in Sheffield. A few computers were in the office, but they certainly weren’t the norm. If I wanted to communicate with someone, I’d either phone them or dictate a letter onto a cassette which would be transcribed onto paper by one of several secretaries using an electric typewriter which, after having been photocopied for the file, would be passed to an elderly and lovely lady called Mavis whose sole job was to deal with incoming and outgoing post, delivering your letters into an individual pigeon holes, such was the volume of letters we were collectively sending and receiving. A week or so later, the person you wrote to would send you a letter back which Mavis would diligently put into your pigeon hole and the whole process would repeat itself.
Life seemed to run at a far gentler pace, but if a document or letter was really urgent, you could stand watching over a chirruping fax machine where you check your phone number portability here, whilst it slowly ate the individual pages you’d carefully feed it one by one, as you’d never trust it to feed itself for fear of it eating multiple pages simultaneously. You would then have to phone the person to make sure that they had received all the pages of the fax and that they were legible. Equally, if someone sent you a fax, you’d need to file it away pretty quickly because any exposure to sunlight would render the writing invisible within days!
Needless to say, there was a lot of paper in the business and huge amounts of floor space were dedicated to floor to ceiling filing cabinets. It would seem the whole office was largely designed around the management of A4 sheets of paper and not a lot changed for many years in that regard.
Roll forward 25 years and I now have, care of Apple Incorporation, a piece of technology in my pocket that I can use to either email, call or even video-conference anyone, anywhere on the planet. Not only that but it gives me access to an almost infinite amount of research via Google, I can use it to pay for my lunchtime sandwich, listen to old Dexy’s albums or even shoot angry birds at some green pigs!
I’m lucky if I get more than a couple of letters a week, so I no longer need a desk surrounded by reams of paper to do my job. I’ve access to all my files on my phone and, as a result, I can work anywhere and at any time I choose. Indeed, I’m dictating this directly onto my iPad way past midnight, sat on my sofa watching live cricket from India, but I could just as easily be researching and writing a complex report for my day job.
I’m part of Generation X, the first generation that grew up riding the wave of technology which burst into the office and like many of my peers, I’m now in a decision making position, moulding a company to suit my lifestyle and aspirations. I’m not interested in seeing someone sat at their desk from 8.30 to 6.30 five days a week just for the sake of visibly “at work”. I’m only interested in results and if someone can do the business whilst sat in the bath or walking the dog, I really don’t care.
With the retirement of the Baby Boomers, there’s been a generational shift in the leadership of businesses and I believe that will manifest itself in a material change in the workplace, especially as Generation Y, or the Millennials as they are otherwise known, come through the ranks and take a seat at the top table. They have only ever grown up in a connected world that’s full of Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp and they would see me, at 44 years old, as a dinosaur. They think and work in an entirely different way to me, with the distinction between their professional and social lives, which are already blurring, will disappear.
Cloud computing, ultra fast broadband, tablets, OLED screens and wearable tech will bizarrely, I believe, make technology less, rather than more, visible in the office workplace – and I use the word “workplace” deliberately.
There was a time when people thought that technology would mean we would all be working from home. Whilst that does have its place, you can’t fight millions of years of evolution and Homo Sapien is a social animal which is simply happier and more productive when part of a team. I think that businesses will always have a physical focal point and I don’t just mean a couple of racks whirring away in an air conditioned data centre somewhere. Rather than a series of individual desks, each with a static hard wired computer sat on it, workplaces will evermore morph into something more akin to the first class lounge at an international airport with areas of soft seating to allow collaborative working and small acoustically baffled booths which could be used when peace and quiet is needed. I even know of one company who are intent on creating an entire self-contained meeting room on wheels that can be wheeled around a building just in case it’s needed!
The Chief Exec’s large “power office” with its imposing desk and private bathroom will have been consigned to history as people’s definition of status have already shifted away from ostentation. Indeed, in the future office I suspect you’d be hard pressed to spot the owners or directors of a business. Power dressing went out of the window years ago – just look at how the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, the poster boys of the future, dress themselves in jeans and t-shirts.
I can also foresee a situation whereby groups of similar or even competing companies collaborate to share space and facilities in a centralised hub for which they are charged by usage rather than pay a rental based upon floor area. The sheer omnipresence of technology and the “Internet of Things” would make it relatively easy for a landlord of the future office to know when a tenant (and I no longer think that’s an appropriate title) has entered or left a building, ordered a coffee, grabbed a sandwich from a fridge, printed a report or even chosen to sleep in a bedroom, given that the notion of the working day is ebbing away. I also think that concierge services will feature prominently, offering services to the user that have nothing whatsoever to do with the core role.
The future will, as it always should, be exciting ride. I intend to cling onto it for as long as I can, but some things will never change no matter what. People do business with people, not machines and businesses will only thrive if they have a motivated and committed workforce. Thus the office of the future will forever evolve to meet and exceed the aspirations and expectations of the people who use it.