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Planning for the Office of the Future

October 24 2018

Look through history, and we’re not that great at predicting the future. In 1943, IBM famously envisioned a world market for ‘maybe five computers’, while one advisor to Henry Ford dismissed the automobile as ‘a fad’ in 1903. Perhaps, though, it’s not the limitless potential of technology we struggle with, but with anticipating how human behaviour will respond.

Tim Berners Lee might have seen the World Wide Web as a solution for sharing research information at CERN, but barely 30 years later a third of all data transferred across the internet is for sharing ‘research’ of the porn variety. We expect new technology to break fresh ground, shatter strongholds and disrupt convention, but today just 0.1% of websites account for more than half the world’s web traffic, the top 50 Instagram accounts share 3.1 billion followers, and 11 of the top 30 Twitter accounts belong not to thinkers, revolutionaries or activists… but pop singers.

american-cellphone-coffee-1391371Part of the problem is that we can’t create a vision of the future without a viewpoint in the present. Is it a coincidence that Blade Runner (1982) channelled urban decay and all-powerful corporations into its vision of 2019, whereas Back to the Future II (1989) imbued the far-off galaxy of 2015 with sexy stuff like video chat, drones and hoverboards? There wasn’t much to get excited about at the beginning of the Eighties. There was plenty by the end.

The IT Crowd

All this because at BBD we’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Office of the Future as part of our work with HP and Aruba. For both, we’ve helped elaborate a vision of seamless collaboration, mobile workforces connected through the cloud, and flexible workspaces that break through physical barriers. So more BttF2 than Blade Runner, but passing at times through elements of Black Mirror and Nathan Barley. Totally Mexico, yeah?

So here’s what we know…

1. Outsourced freelance collaboration will become the norm, not the outlier. Thanks to cloud storage, slick project management platforms, SaaS, and high-speed connectivity, we do not all have to assemble in the same location according to the same schedule to get work done. Organisations can form agile ad hoc project teams with a combination of freelance support, without the need for a restrictive hierarchy to drive progress. As long as technology is the accelerator, not the hand brake.

2. The office of the future probably isn’t one. Even modest media companies now have interests around the world, spread across time zones. They need a presence in each place, but not an office. Collaborative, shared work spaces are no longer a novelty. Thanks to Google Chrome and the like, you can now transport your entire work environment, files, passwords and even picture of the family to any location. You can join a meeting, share files, or hold a status call from a coffee shop or poolside pagoda. We need to see the office as a hosted space, rather than simply a physical address.

3. Devices (and risks) will continue to proliferate. According to Moore’s Law, the speed and power of microchips doubles every 24 months. There is no reason to suggest that we’ll ever take our foot off the pedal. In the smart office, we’ll be connected across multiple devices, through several platforms, both via internal networks and through the cloud. For the workforce, it’s merely a case of translating leisure habits into the workplace, but pity the poor IT manager. The relentless pace of data, the unforgiving onslaught of attacks, and the increased consequences of downtime have multiplied the need to keep everything patched, updated and compliant. They’re just about winning, for now…

Remote_Working

And here’s where we’re guessing…

1. We might not get more work done. The magazine I worked for in 1999 had phones (and ashtrays) on the desks, couriers whisking proofs across town, a cupboard stocked with Yellow Pages, and a full-time picture researcher. But the working week was just as long, and the output no less prolific, than any digital marketing agency today. Technology reinvents itself roughly every three years, but we’re still resisting how much we let it transform work.

2. We’re not all early adopters. Yes, we’re already working with AI, VR and holograms, but the learning curve doesn’t accommodate us all. There seems to be the assumption that an influx of tech-savvy Millennials will take care of business, but not unless a) we’re actually hiring fresh talent b) we’re prepared to break through those infamous silos to let the younger workforce influence the lifers. Assuming that emerging tech will teach itself is a sobering experience if you’ve ever watched a room full of digital marketers try to set up a video conference call.

3. There are things we don’t even know that we haven’t thought of. Huawei estimates that ICT will use 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025. Already 77% of the world’s internet traffic is online video. There may be a feeling that where we’re going, we don’t need roads, but we could find ourselves stuck on the hard shoulder without a dramatic restructuring in how data is stored and transmitted.

4. Humans will be humans. The most pervasive disease in the US, according to the Surgeon General, is not cancer, heart disease or diabetes. It is isolation. The age of acceleration is inspiring some of us, but it is also excluding those it leaves behind. Every time we paint a brave new world for tech, we have to remember that Brave New World was a dystopian warning.

But, hey. Enough of the Philip Dick in your face. As a digital marketing agency, we’re constantly plotting and whiteboarding ways to make things better, smoother and more engaging. If you’d like to take a look at our work for HP and Aruba, you’ll be pleasantly reassured that the future’s nothing to be afraid of.

 See HP Future of Office

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