The Office of 2030 – What Does the Future Hold

Introduction & Context

Late in the afternoon of this past Friday – 22nd January 2016 – I received quite an unexpected email from a Media & Online Relations Specialist at searchlaboratory.com on behalf of the UK broadband provider Plusnet. To my surprise they had written to thank me for tweeting about an article I had read a few days before at siliconrepublic.com about the future office (online).

This particular site provides quite a few interesting news stories each day about Science and Technology, many of these articles are focused towards news stories in Ireland, but many are also based much further afield; such as one pointing towards evidence of Planet in the outer reaches of our solar system (online).

The article in question that I had tweeted was “Your future office: Smart toilets, holograms, VR and a slide!” (online). I had been asked if I would feature the content on my blog and write some of my own thoughts about the general topic area. This sounded like a really interesting invitation as I had read quite a number of articles over the past few years about the use of office space and the ever increasing move towards open-plan. Such a request isn’t totally out of the ordinary either having in the past few months for example contributed material towards books & a BBC television documentary all down to having a presence on the likes of Flicker, Twitter and YouTube.

The Impact of Technology, Robots and AI

Just recently I had attended a BCS lecture titled “Impact of Robots – Where have all the good jobs gone?” One of many interesting elements of note from this talk was that within the next 10 to 15 years or so a very significant number of the jobs that exist today would be no more. These would be jobs of a repetitive nature including the likes of accountants, data entry clerks, telesales operators and bank clerks to name but a few. Positions requiring the analysis and understanding of x-rays, MRI Scans, biopsy slides and the like often require years and years of training, with persons working in the field for 15 or even 20 years before becoming an expert in the interpretation of same. Yet with the advances of Image Recognition technologies, such analysis can now be done by a machine (Robot) in a few seconds or less, yielding far greater levels of accuracy.

We are now reaching a point in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century where machines/software/algorithms are performing better than humans. Jobs of today that are still likely to be around in the near future would be positions that would have high levels of interaction with clients. Such positions would include Surgery, Dentistry, Choreography, Audiologists, Dieticians and Nutritionists. Technology, in particular advancements in Artificial Intelligence will allow for the automated processing, understanding and interpretation of large volumes of data at a rate that no human could ever match.

The following 72 page article “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Frey and Osborne, 2013 (online) provides a detailed analysis of the probability to which a particular occupation can be computerised. The Appendix commencing on page 57 provides a detailed list ranking 702 occupations – from those that are essentially a certainty to be replaced by machines to those still likely to be around in the future.

When considering what the Office of the Future will be like, one should start from the likelihood that many of todays jobs will not exist in the near future. The following BBC News article (online) titled “Will a robot take your job?” has a nice feature whereby one can type in an occupation to find out the “risk” of it being taken over by automation. Another BBC news article dated 20th Jan 2016 includes a short video segment highlighting the issue of “How robots are changing the way we work” (online). An example of a physical robot capable at present of carrying out many operations one would find on a factory production line is “Baxter”. The BBC Article suggests those “doing low-skilled, low paid jobs and those earning less than £30,000 are most likely to be replaced by a machine” (online).

A Desk & Internet Connection

A question recently posed was: “Would you rent out your home as an office workspace?” (online) 15th Jan 2016. Perhaps for many jobs all one needs today is a desk, Internet connection, a supply of tea/coffee and of course the kitchen sink. If you feel that your home could be put to better use while you are away at work, then why not let some strangers make use of your facilities? One website in particular – OfficeRiders.com offers such a service, with prices from the likes of €10 per day to work in a stranger’s home. This is certainly a different take on the concept of the “Home Office”.

The Office Desk

The office desk of the 1980’s and that of today are worlds apart. The physical clutter of books, notepads, calendars, fax machines, newspapers, phones, calculators, telephone books and the like have migrated their way to present themselves as a software representation of same on your computer. The team at the Harvard Innovation Lab (online), produced a nice video depicting the evolution of the Office Desk as can be seen below, some further detail can be seen (online). The original producer of the video was BestReviews with the original video available at (http://bestreviews.com).

Having a physically large desk real estate area allows one to readily organise and arrange things, the same holds true for a computer system. Having two or more Screens (Visual Display Units (VDU’s)) can greatly improve productivity (online). It’s not just about physical screen space but also resolution. The iMac 5K Retina display for examples has a 5120×2880 native resolution. One can expect to see 8K broadcasts just around the corner, kicking off in time for the 2020 Olympics Games (online).

Sit, Stand, Move, Get Active

We are standing on the precipice of a health crisis with obesity expected to be the norm. According to the World Health Organisation for example it is estimated that 91% of Irish men will be overweight or obese by 2030 (online)(online). Given that such a large portion of the week is dedicated to our working lives, it will be in the best interest of all (employer & employee) to work in an environment that encourages a more active lifestyle.

As we move ever closer to 2030 the axiom of “Sitting is the new smoking” becomes ever more true (online). Prolonged sitting is being linked to a range of health problems, limited not just to obesity but also diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular disease and shorter life spans. As with everything in life one needs balance, sitting all day clearly leads to a sedentary lifestyle. Working at a standing desk all day is also not the answer due to cardiovascular issues, varicose veins and back pain. Standing does burn more calories than sitting however. One may find the following “Sitting vs Standing” calculator of interest (online).

According to a BBC article from 2013 (online) “Even if you exercise on a regular basis that may not be enough. There is mounting evidence that exercise will not undo the damage done by prolonged sitting. Our technology has made us the most sedentary humans in history”. The well known axiom that “variety is the spice of life” certainly holds true for how we should be interacting with desk based work. We should be combining sitting with segments of standing and moving about.

Standing Desks

Standing desks could certainly help in making the workforce less sedentary, though given that standing all day isn’t the answer a suitable chair for same would also be called for. If you are interested in knowing more about the Standing desk option cnet.com has an article discussing five things one should consider before switching over (online). The “next step up” no pun intended would be the treadmill desk. A 2013 BBC article (online) discusses how practical they are. It would seem the author burnt 300 calories while writing the article. Treadmill desks certainly tick two boxes allowing one to move about e.g. walk at 1mph while working and also stand. The addition of a suitably designed chair that marries in well with the Treadmill desk could perhaps be the ultimate solution. The idea of the Standing desk isn’t new, with many well known figures dating back to Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and even Albert Einstein making use of them (online).

Is a Desk Always Needed?

We have seen how the office as we know it has transformed. Many Private offices have vanished in favour of Open-plan spaces. Some people are letting out their homes to complete strangers providing them with a space to work, Internet connection a the other life essential basics. It would seem the meaning of the term “office” today is much more fluid that what it was in decades past. Mobile technology, Wifi, 4G and the like means that many people can work from anywhere. For many who commute long distances by train for example, the train itself is their office for much of the working day. With the likes of tables and smart paper, one can take all the document you want with you where ever you want, therefore the office moves with you. This can lead to one working and having meetings anywhere from kitchen to a physical desk space, breakout area, park, shopping centre, coffee shop etc. These need not be meetings in person either, video conferencing tools such as Skype means on can have meetings with anybody in the world at any time. During the period of writing this article for example I’ve had several group calls in skype with colleagues across several European countries & have had meetings much farther afield as well. Skype combined with some form of file sharing service such a Google Drive, can make for a powerful combination whereby a group can contribute to the editing of a document and discuss progress / updates at the same time.

Deep Below, up Above, in Orbit and Beyond

The science fiction horror film “Resident Evil” released in 2002 was mainly set in an underground complex hidden deep below “Racoon City”. One of the first vistas the main characters come across upon entering “the Hive” underground facility is a scene not unlike anything you would expect to see in any modern day city when looking out the window. The advancement in display / television technology such as from 4K to 8K in recent years makes such a scenario all the more a reality.

The example of a “Video Wall” of some external environment isn’t just limited to the confines of our world either. Towards the beginning of the 1986 film “Aliens” directed by James Cameron we find the main character “Ripley” seated in what appears to be a nice outdoor space. It’s only when the camera pulls back does it reveal that the area she is sitting in is just a small cubicle with some potted plants and a video wall depicting a scenic snapshot of nature. One would have never guessed that she was orbiting high above in a space station.

Moving out and away from the confines of our Solar System, one cannot discuss the future of display technology without mentioning the “Holodeck” from “Star Trek”. It’s strange to think that much of what was seen in the original 1960’s TV series is now a modern day fact of life that is often taken for granted. Perhaps one example of “science fiction” from that era was that of wireless communications. Yet in the world of today the vast majority of the world’s seven billion inhabitants have a mobile at arm’s reach. The “Holodeck” may have seemed like pure science fiction just a few years ago, yet in the past year quite a few news articles reported about the development of 3D holograms that one can actually touch and feel with your fingers (online). Perhaps in a few years we could use such technology to sculpt objects by hand and then send for 3D Printing.

Life it seems is imitating fiction – or in this case science fiction. Aircraft in the near future are expected to no longer have windows, instead the cabin interior being replaced with the surrounding vista, or any other video content of one’s imagining. A conceptual video presenting this future change in aviation was presented and discussed back in 2014 (online) with the vision of developing flexible high definition OLED displays (online).

The Open-plan Office

Certainly for many occupations the following 2013 article “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” (online) sums up open-plan offices in a nutshell. It would seem that a “lack of sound privacy” is one of the main bones of contention for people working in such spaces.

The following 2014 article titled “Open-plan is Not Always From Hell” (online) highlights that open plan “has to suit the work processes and organisation cultures of the occupants” and points out that open-plan seemed to work well for a radio station, “similarly, trading rooms require an open-plan layout”. It is extremely interesting however that it also says “In contrast, enclosed offices work particularly well for research. Academics for instance need to concentrate for reading and writing tasks, but also require privacy to deal with student issues”.

It’s extremely interesting to see that an article titled “Open-Plan is Not Always From Hell” says that enclosed offices work particularly well for research and academia. Why is it then that many universities are herding large groups of academics into open-plan spaces that are not fit for purpose, when the very nature of the work necessitates private office space? One may argue that this is a cost saving measure, but it’s also one that that doesn’t lend itself to the concentrated work of academia and greatly limits accessibility of staff to discuss issues with students.

Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP’s) “tend to be conscientious, loyal, good at catching mistakes, and committed to high performance” (online). The typical open-plan office isn’t the most appropriate environment for such people, yet these are the people who are most valuable to a business. Noise is one of the key drawbacks of the open-plan environment. Research conducted almost 20 years ago “showed that open plan office noise reduces the productivity of knowledge workers by a staggering 66%” (online).

Some people who work in an open-plan environment often resort to headphones and music to drown out the noise. One should first consider that if many staff find it necessary to wear headphones to try and concentrate, then clearly a significant problem exists in the work environment “Headphones have become a necessary coping mechanism” (online). Working under such conditions could very well do damage to your hearing in the long term. The World Health Organisation (WHO) for example recommends limiting headphone time to at most one hour per day (online)(online).

Open-plan: Too Noisy to Work – Try an Airport Instead

During the process of writing this blog post I happened to be doing a bit of travelling and was sitting in a departure lounge restaurant of an airport that last year had over 25 million passengers pass through it. One thing that suddenly dawned on me having seen some open-plan environments was that the overall environment, level of lighting, decor, and more importantly noise levels were many orders of magnitude better than the open-plan office environments I had seen. How could it be that an airport departure area with thousands and thousands of people passing through could be a more serene environment than an open-plan office for one or two dozen people?

The Plusnet Illustrated Vision of the Future Office in 2030

According to Plusnet “A great office is the foundation of a happy workforce” (online). Many open-plan offices of today are ill-designed with uninteresting finishes, little consideration to room acoustics and plane unimaginative desks adorned with the usual keyboard, mouse, screen, system unit and phone. Will the proliferation of open-plan continue to expand into the future, will we see a return to more conventional individual office spaces or perhaps a combination of the two. What will the office of 2030 look like. Plusnet with the assistance of a number of futurists and futurologists have come up with one possible interpretation / vision of the future office.

2030 Office Overview

The illustration below provides a general overview of how a multi-storey office building may be like in 2030. As can be clearly seen it has been broken down into six distinct areas: Chill Space, Office Space, Reception, Roof Garden, Meeting Room, Kitchen / Bathroom.

OfficeOfTheFutureRoomByRoom

Reception & Parking

Over the past year or two driverless cars have been attracting more and more headlines on the news. As illustrated below, car parks could make use of a stacking system, one could probably readily design this into a new build, though for existing structures may perhaps take the form of multilevel above ground parking. Perhaps car ownership could radically change, given that for the vast majority of a cars existence it just sits still not being used. Perhaps car-sharing could become a more popular option where cars are sitting in a parking space just to recharge. If one were to include an underground parking with a stacking system, then one would of course need to consider the cost/benefit of this weighed up with the carbon cost \ environmental impact of same.

Holographic receptionists could welcome you upon arrival, with personalised greetings enabled via biometric scanning technologies. Security of such biometric data would of course be of great importance & likely to reside in the companies private cloud. Holographic receptionists may sound like science fiction at present, but in the past couple of days it was announced that a Japanese phone carrier will be staffing an entire phone store with robots (online), the robot it question being called “Pepper” (online).

OfficeOfTheFuture-Reception

The Office

It looks like open-plan and flexible workspaces will be the future. It’s nice to see the inclusion of Standing Desks – especially considering that “Sitting is now the new Smoking”. Sitting or standing for any prolonged length of time isn’t good for ones wellbeing. Perhaps we may even see a few treadmill desks & standing desk seating too. Perhaps the desk as you know it will disappear and simply be an interactive surface. The Microsoft PixelSense (Samsung SUR 40) became available in 2012 for example supporting up to 52 simulations touches throughout its 40 inch table top display and weighed well over 30Kg. Advances in nanotechnology will mean any surface could potentially be a means of interacting with the companies files / data / cloud and weigh little to nothing.

OfficeOfTheFuture-OfficeSpace

Meeting Rooms

As illustrated below meeting rooms will likely have interactive tables able to bring up any files / data a user desires. They would also be able to seamlessly interact with ones devices. Perhaps some sense of this can be readily seen in the “Board Room” scene from the 2010 film “Tron Legacy”. Telepresence robots are also likely to be the norm along with holographic representations of persons anywhere in the world. Why sit when you can stand, why stand when you can walk – perhaps many meetings in the future can be held while walking around the office or outside. With a secure wireless connection you can take the office with you on the go.

OfficeOfTheFuture-MeetingRoom

The Kitchen & Bathroom

Those of you today who may have fitness trackers or an app for monitoring daily calorie intake/ expenditure will tomorrow be able to take care of all of this without having to constantly log everything. The world of tomorrow will be littered with Trillions of sensors all amassing and processing readings, data and information in real-time. The Internet of Things will mean everything can communicate with everything else. If you always take a break at 11:00 for your morning coffee, then the intelligent kitchen will know when to make it, so it’s at the correct individualised consistency and temperature for you once you arrive in the kitchen to grab your cup.

OfficeOfTheFuture-KitchenBathroom

The “Food Replicators” from Star Trek will likely exist in the form of 3D printers able to print out a number of predefined “patterns” of food items. In the world of Star Trek the computer needed to know the molecular pattern structure for a particular item or food to “replicate” it. In the world of 2030 we may not have yet reached the level of molecular manipulation as depicted in Star Trek, however 3D Printing technology should allow for a number of food patterns to be printed.

OfficeOfTheFuture-Kitchen

Facilities in the bathroom will become smarter and greener. Quite a deal can probably be gleaned from the technologies employed with the International Space Station and former Space Shuttle programme – in particular with water usage. Diagnoses of medical conditions could also be carried out. It’s likely you may perhaps have a complete profile of your medical status somewhere in the cloud. A cheap temperature sensor could easily detect if you were running a fever for example.

OfficeOfTheFuture-Bathroom

Chill Space

Issues around mental and physical wellbeing are becoming ever more present in the news. It’s likely that the future will place a greater emphasis on work-life balance. A fit and healthy workforce is a much more productive workforce. Areas to chill-out, play games and grab a bit of sleep during the day could very well improve wellbeing.

OfficeOfTheFuture-ChillSpace

The Garden Roof

Connecting with nature more may give us a better sense of the delicate biosphere in which we live. The more concrete buildings, streets and paving we create the less space for plant life exists in our busy towns and cities. Plant life is so important in filtering out carbon dioxide, providing us with oxygen and so much of the food we eat that we should take care of it every way we can.

OfficeOfTheFuture-RoofGarden

The Office and Environs

The final illustration depicting Plusnet’s vision of the future office, shows the office building, surrounding streets and buildings. Perhaps we may also see technology to facilitate renewable energy creating buildings that require little from the main power grid. One news article published in December 2015 looked at a low energy house that runs on as little as £15 per year (online). If such can be done for a house what can super-insulating, renewable energy, energy efficient windows, LED lighting and the likes do to create a low energy building design for business.

OfficeOfTheFuture-FullStreetView

Summary

To find out more about the Plusnet vision of the Office in 2030 you can read the 25 page report (online). Plusnet have also written about this in their own blog (online) with a room by room breakdown also available (online).

At the end of the day we will have to wait until 2030 to know for sure what the future office will be like. One thing for certain is that it will be quite different that the office we know today. In particular many of today’s jobs will no longer exist, perhaps as high as 50% of today’s jobs/occupations will have been taken over by AI/Machines/Robots within a mere 15 years. The Internet of Things (IoT) will create a world littered with trillions of sensing devices all gathering data/information about the environment and communicating that to help us make better decisions and work more effectively. Technology will become so ubiquitous that we will no longer even realise it is exists as it will permeate the very fabric of our lives. Computing, AI, Robots, Telecommunications will disappear into the background and become like Electricity, ever present yet invisible. Even the very process of turning on a light switch or turning on the heating upon entering the office will be completely obsolete as the office itself will take care of it automatically.

One final suggestion of a film to watch would be “Iron Man”, as you will see the home of “Tony Stark” is fully automated and run by an AI called “Jarvis”. One of my favourite lines “commencing automated assembly” maps well to the topic at hand is said by the “Jarvis” AI, when the design of the Iron Man suit has been completed. This being a perfect example of machines building machines.

Will the open-plan office continue to be a cornerstone of many office environments, or will many businesses realise the reduction in productivity that results from same and therefore resort back to private individual office space. Perhaps the future will see a combination of the two. Whichever way it goes, careful consideration needs to be given to the overall environment, colour scheme, furniture & fittings and above all the acoustic signature of the environment.

What will the office of 2030 be like is a huge question. This post has briefly explored some of what exists today and what the future may hold.

What are Your Thoughts on the Workplace of 2030?

What will the Office of 2030 look like, and to what degree will technology be seamlessly embedded?

What sort of jobs do you think will exist in 2030?

Will the job your doing today no longer exist?

Will your profession be extinct by 2030?

Education more than ever before will be essential in securing a job in 2030, should we be investing more in STEM right now?

Should we be investing more in physical fitness & wellbeing education given the ever increasing upward trend of obesity?

Given we spend so much of our lives at work what can employers do to enhance the environment so that we are more active, thereby having less health issues in the future and being more productive?

Even in School, students can often be sitting in class for durations of 1.5 to 2 hours or so, for example from 09:00 to 10:45 or from 11:00 to 13:00. The creation of good habits of work begin at an early age, how could Schools break up a long period of sitting with some standing and cardio every 20 to 30 minutes?

Will you consider having a go at a Standing or Treadmill desk? Should employers provide the option?

Should we all be wearing Activity Trackers to remind us to get up and move around at least a few times each hour?

What can be done to counteract persons being overweight or obese – noting that by 2030 its predicted that over 90% of people in some countries could be this way?

Which is better for your health – to work in a job that requires moderate to high levels of activity, construction – for example – whilst smoking 20 a day OR to sit at desk for eight hours a day barely moving?

Given the World Health Organisation recommends limiting headphone use to an hour at most, would you be will to potentially damage your future hearing just to drown out the noise of an Open-plan office?

What other questions should be considered here?

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