“Firsthand experiences and pleasures,” wrote Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in his 1995 book The Road Ahead, “are personal and unmediated. No one, in the name of progress, will take away from you the experience of lying on a beach, or shopping at a flea market.”
But, according to Gates, firsthand experiences aren’t always rewarding; we have been using technology to try to invent ways to avoid waiting in line “ever since we first queued up”.
Gates was setting the scene for a discussion around how the internet could widen spheres of communication, and give us the ability to talk to colleagues in another country as easily as if they were in the office next door. But 17 years – and many leaps and bounds in technology – later, this revolution in communication is challenging the very need for that office at all. Do we go into the office every day out of choice, or necessity?
Business communication methods have become so unified that conferencing, decision-making and many fundamentals of work and management can be carried out from remote locations. With a decent Wi-Fi connection, the right software and a positive attitude, workers can be just as productive at home or on the road as sitting behind an office desk. So what does this mean for the future of the office? And what kinds of technologies will the workplaces of tomorrow require?
“I think it’s fascinating how offices are evolving from places where people sit at a single desk or in a little grey cubicle like a battery hen,” says Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT (pictured).
“The weird thing is that open plan was a product of the 1970s, and it hasn’t really moved on since then, but technology has. So in the 70s we didn’t have the technology we could carry around with us; we were tethered to the desk. We had lots of paper, and all of those things have changed, while the configuration of the office hasn’t.”
Millard says that for the past 20 years BT has been trying to address the question “Why do you need a desk?”. In this time, the telecoms giant introduced proprietary desktop suites and enterprise social media, among other innovations, as part of its effort to change people’s attitudes to where they need to be to get results.
It’s Microsoft Lync, says Millard, which really stands out as a beacon of progress. “You have access to this whole suite of unified comms,” she says, “so unified comms seems to be a lot more unified now. [It fits in with the idea that] face-to-face isn’t the default sometimes, because it’s not always practical.
“It’s about the assets,” she adds. “The perception is, if it’s not going to make me more productive, I won’t pick it up. That’s been the frustration. But things like Lync have brought together a whole toolbox. The social network of one has become the social network of many. If your peers are on it, you’re more likely to adopt.”