The office as we know it is constantly evolving. We’ve seen it move from ranked desks through to the cubicle farms of the ’80s and back to more informal, open plan spaces. Every change has been matched by ongoing developments in technology, as pen and paper gave way to the typewriter, and the typewriter to personal computers.
But how is the office changing now, and where is it headed tomorrow?
The office space
Architects and business leaders have been reconfiguring the office for the last 150 years, shifting from long, orderly desks to divided workspaces and cubicle farms. Thankfully, we’ve now come out the other side, and today’s office spaces have gone back to open plan arrangements, promoting collaboration within teams.
Many companies have also made the move, at least partially, to hotdesking. Even the desks themselves are changing to suit new modes of working, as companies adopt standing desks, bar-style desks, mobile desks and even ‘superdesks.’
The office arrangement of the future looks set to build on these flexible arrangements, with even more versatile spaces and furniture designed to reflect new agile working trends. More technology will be built into the walls and furniture, including wireless charging points, screens and digital whiteboards which connect seamlessly to workers’ devices when required.
Expect to see the growth of the smart office, where embedded Internet of Things sensors provide data to automated systems that optimize how space, lighting, heating and other office resources are used. This could bring big energy savings to companies and help them in their CSR programs.
Forward-looking companies will also focus more on employee wellbeing. Game rooms and table football aren’t the right fit for every corporate culture, but more green spaces, more plants and more natural light are widely seen as beneficial both for happiness and productivity.
Meeting rooms and social spaces
Traditionally the office has had two types of areas where workers meet: the formal spaces—dedicated meeting rooms and boardrooms for serious discussions—and informal spaces such as the kitchen or cafeteria, where conversations happen and departmental siloes start breaking down.
Today’s offices are already blurring the line between the two, designating some areas as informal meeting or teamwork spaces. In the future, we can expect more ad-hoc social spaces designed to promote interaction, as well as the use of IoT data to track how workers use the building, and create more opportunities to engage with colleagues outside their immediate teams.
Companies will also be looking for more ways to bring employees working remotely or from home together with their office-based colleagues. As well as large displays, could we begin to see virtual reality headsets and holographic displays becoming the new normal?
It’s never just the desks and their positioning that changes, but also the technology. Single-purpose devices have had their functions absorbed by software and services. The contents of the filing cabinet have moved into HCM and CRM software. It could be argued that some of the biggest changes in technology—say, the introduction of the desktop PC, the network and email—have enabled shifts in office design. Even the telephone is no longer a constant fixture.
We’re seeing similar shifts happening right now as companies move away from desktop PCs to laptops or convertibles, providing employees with productivity tools, communication options and information wherever they are. As companies embrace agile working, the technology is falling into place to support their goals.
Expect further developments in office computing, with more processing power built into the office environment and more services that rely on facial recognition, voice recognition and speech. We’ll also see workers in every industry using more intelligent or cognitive systems, pulling relevant insight from company data and learning what we want and need to do the job. That’s a shift that will undoubtedly require further office rethinks—or simply new ways for human workers and their new AI co-workers to interact.
Infrastructure and services
The development of the office brought with it massive growth in bureaucracy and paperwork, and the need for infrastructure to support it. The shift to PC and digital technologies during the ’80s and ’90s transformed the way businesses handled data, with the network and client/server architectures enabling companies to store and share information more effectively.
In recent years that has changed again, with cloud-based services removing the restrictions that tied information to a specific location or even a specific device. Information now flows from place to place and device to device, bound only by security provisions and access rights.
The growth of cloud and hybrid cloud services isn’t abating anytime soon, with more intelligent personal assistants and BI tools that don’t merely find us data when we request it, but take a more proactive approach, pushing relevant information that can help us in our current business tasks. Meanwhile, collaboration apps and services will change how we work together, so that workflows are seamless whether we’re in the office, on the move or working from home.
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