Is the office of the future a physical entity?

29 January 2013 -


Does the advent of webinar and conferencing technology and a growing use of cloud computing mean that managers no longer need to meet in a physical space? Farah Dib hears two experts go head-to-head

For decades, the “paperless office” has been a dream for ergonomic designers, who have portrayed it as a utopian liberator from workplace stresses. But as that dream has crept closer to reality and office activities have migrated into cyberspace, others have argued that it is, in fact, a nightmare – marred by a decline in the very kinds of social contact that inspire productivity. Which side do you believe?


Mark Maitland, managing director and senior confidence coach for Make Me Confident

Just because we can does not mean we should. Modernity has us chasing advanced technology, enabling us to be online and available anywhere in the world. As a culture we are so entrenched in remote communication that working from anywhere in the world, except the office, has become an attractive possibility.

However, ideas emerge from human interaction because we are social creatures. People need people. A lack of interaction with our fellow humans is inimical to our personal and professional development. The virtual office and use of remote conferencing create a layer of distance that blocks understanding and meaning between each person.

When people are around one another they feed off each other. Ideas spark from little encounters at the water cooler or passing someone in the stairwell to catch a conversation that you join in with, prompting new ways of thinking about a problem. It’s this environment that people need to feel valued, wanted and inspired to drive a business.

Future businesses will need creative ideas to survive and these will happen in an office where people collaborate together. Collective togetherness promotes team spirit, which in turn emboldens companies into a higher level of performance, creating winning cycles. People need to feel wanted and valued, as well as needing downtime to socialise together at lunch or during coffee breaks. There is also a great importance in being around others, from superficial interaction to developing good friendships. All of this underpins strong emotional health and the foundations for good-quality productivity.

Perhaps of equal significance is the concept of how offices are planned and laid out. If a workspace looks and feels inspiring and welcoming, the time spent in this environment can be much more productive and conducive to fewer working hours overall, because of the collaborative and creative potential of working together in this place. Moving away from traditional office setups and into creative, postmodern spaces might get more out of the people who work in them. An aesthetically energising space that inspires creative thought and encourages emotional wellbeing would enable people to come together as a community of creators and doers.

A welcoming, people-orientated and creative space for people to share and be together, to learn, grow and reimagine the way that business and people produce products and ideas together is the future workspace, and it is a physical one.


Mattias Hällström, founder and director of research and development, Projectplace

The workplace is going through a period of dramatic change and the way we work is evolving in very exciting ways.

Offices, as we know them today, were initially created as support for manufacturing sites. Eventually, offices moved to cities and suburbs, and turned into places to work, to have meetings, to create and store your documents.

But in the past few years several technological trends have emerged that significantly reduce our dependence on physical offices. The consumerisation of IT means we often have better technology at home than at our office. Cloud computing makes our infrastructure, our data and our documents readily accessible wherever we want to perch our laptops. Mobile phones and tablets are more robust than ever, and we can use the same applications on any device we choose. Technically speaking, we have the tools we need to do our jobs virtually anywhere we choose.

But that’s not the end of the story. Humans are a very social species and interaction with others is an important part of going to work. Research has shown that significant parts of our brain are devoted to social interaction and thrive when we are finding, creating and sustaining human relationships. That is why the advent of social networking has been so pivotal to new ways of working. Social networks have changed the way we interact with each other so that we can both communicate rapidly and feel a sense of community, whether we are sitting in the same room as a colleague or on opposite sides of the globe.

In the future, it is very unlikely there will be a dedicated place for work. The concept of a workplace will change or disappear altogether. Work will be about creating value together, but very few jobs will be tied to a physical office. If you’re sceptical, just take a look at open source communities where people create very advanced systems without ever meeting. They can work wherever they go. They create value that has nothing to do with “going to work”.

Forward-looking companies welcome the changes happening in the workplace and are frequently referred to as social businesses. These companies are adopting social collaboration tools, improving internal and external communication and transparency, becoming more flexible in their working practices, and embracing the flatter organisational structures that are emerging as a result. Chief executives who avoid these changes be warned: you may wake up one day to find that your corner office simply no longer exists.

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