The workplace of the future

Clare Hopping

Monday 24 July 2017

The workplace is changing, with more businesses allowing employees to work flexible hours through a mix of home working and office-based hot-desking. But what does this mean for the office environment of the future?

Offices around the world are undergoing a revolution. Workplaces are transforming into collaboration spaces where no one has a fixed desk, computers are no longer tied to a single user and boardrooms are virtual.

Companies are embracing flexible working. Employees are expected to work remotely rather than being in the office from nine to five, and senior management are happy to let their middle managers decide who needs to be in the office when.

 This year, it’s estimated that half of businesses will embrace flexible working, allowing employees to work from both home and an office.

The Working Anywhere report by Lancaster University’s Work Foundation believes that by 2020, 70 per cent of employees will have the opportunity to work remotely, and this will result in big changes for businesses as they look for ways to make the office accommodate everyone.

“The evidence is showing a clear trend towards a more flexible way of working in the UK as the hurdles are overcome by fresh innovations in technology and people management,” says Cathy Garner, director of the Work Foundation.

The office space itself

As fewer employees need a desk, businesses can downsize their office space. Small businesses can cut costs by only paying for office space when it’s needed, while larger businesses can either rent out space to smaller companies or relocate into a smaller office – significantly reducing overheads in both cases.

The design of these office spaces will change too. Instead of sprawling offices with cubicles, which contribute nothing to productivity, organisations can instead use a co-working space or open up enclosed spaces to make the environment feel more collaborative.

Configurable desks may feature in some offices, allowing employees to move them around according to whether they need to work collaboratively or singularly, and outside areas will feature heavily, offering workers a breath of fresh air when things start to get stuffy.

If businesses take note of a study that revealed buildings with better ventilation and ‘green’ features improved the cognitive abilities of workers, sophisticated heating and ventilation networks could feature heavily in office design of the future.

Smart lighting will adapt during the day to ensure it’s always the most efficient for employees to get work done, and sensors will monitor the temperature, carbon dioxide levels and humidity, ensuring employee comfort is optimal.

Beacons will be used to log an employee’s attendance from a health and safety point of view, checking them into the building as soon as they walk through the door and logging them off as soon as they leave.

Office hardware of the future

It’s unlikely we’ll see laptops and desktops replaced by the virtual, holographic screens from Minority Report. Nor is it likely all desktops will be replaced by tablets and smartphones. What will change, however, is the way ‘standard’ hardware is used.

Desks will be equipped with computers that employees can simply log into and see the content from their computer at home – or mobile or tablet.

In the boardroom, tables and chairs will be replaced by huge screens such as Microsoft Surface Hub, allowing staff to work collaboratively from home, in a cafe or with a client from another office.

If employees need to make a presentation, they can beam content from their connected device – be it a mobile, tablet or their computer. Because everything is stored on one single account, no one needs to carry bulky equipment with them.

The design of devices is also changing to accommodate portability and flexibility. An example is the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, a 2-in-1 hybrid that can be used as a laptop, tablet and projector.

Office software of the future

Software is the area most likely to experience a shake-up within the office of the future. As teams become more distributed around the world, they need to stay in contact and work as though they are right next to each other.

If businesses opt for the shared desk route, employees will simply arrive at their desk, log in and be able to access everything on a standard computer using a virtual desktop. All files and folders will be on shared drives and accessible from anywhere.

Collaboration tools such as Slack, Trello and Prezi will accommodate 24/7 communication, helping colleagues and teams stay in touch, share resources and ideas, making the working day more productive.

It will also take the headache out of IT management and shadow IT as all equipment is treated equally and individual users won’t be able to install non-approved apps onto the communal computers.

However, five years is a long time in technology evolution and a lot could change before 2022. In fact, it’s likely there will be even more changes in the next two years.

“The next five years will see even more change than the past five years,” Peter Hirst, associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management, told Inc.

“Over the next five years, it is hard to imagine that the display, processing, interface and communication capabilities of these wearable devices won’t match and likely surpass what we can do with today’s tablets and phablets (phone/tablet hybrids).”

One thing’s for sure: as more employees embrace flexible working, employers need to ensure their workers can be more productive wherever they opt to work. And if they do decide to head into the office, they must have all the resources required to get the job done.

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