In parts One and Two, I’ve described trends affecting in profound ways, over the next decade, the way offices will be developed, including their site planning, entitlements, ownership and financing and, ultimately, their leasing and occupancy. This part, and perhaps a few to follow, addresses how technology affects up-and-coming workforce members; and how, in turn, office workplaces are exploited by future “distributed” work forces. Offices are not headed for utter irrelevancy in the knowledge economy era; neither, however, are they going to perform as (in the past) 8-to-5 shelters either for repetitive-tasks performance or for machines and paper filing systems.
Here are four technology trends that augur profound changes in the workplace in the short term. (Even saying this feels absurd. When I look back at this post 3 years from now, I will scoff at my myopic vision. Perhaps all of these trends will themselves have become superseded by further innovations.) The first of these trends is cloud computing. This phenomenon makes storage of costly and bulky equipment as outdated as affordability permits. Offsite storage of data and software platforms and services means that desktop computer processing units, servers and drives are gone. Vanishing hardware in turn reduces overhead (minimizing in-house personnel to manage and maintain servers, hardware and software platforms) and enhances flexibility, since the Web-interface apparatus is accessible anywhere and at any time. Applications, together with their operating systems and accompanying services are hosted by a vendor or service provider, eliminating installation and downloading requirements. Of course, certain bandwidth availability issues remain to be resolved, but in urban areas where most offices are located, needed bandwidth solutions are forthcoming soon.
Second is the impact of virtual document repositories. Web-based repositories support businesses for external collaboration and file-sharing. In short, filing cabinets or shelving units with interminable binders/folders/envelopes containing documents stored are soon to be eliminated. Here’s an illustration: In 2008, the majority of business merger and acquisitions transactions had their due diligence processes operate from such online workspaces. Sure, there remain doubts about the security of such systems, but those anxieties will be addressed with new encryption technologies. These anxieties will be mollified further by the ability to view, upload and download thousands of documents in minutes from a variety of sources without any travel expense or the inconvenience of making multiple, physical “trips” to the currently-familiar repository buildings. Add to the cost-savings avoidance of crowding into a room or rooms with other persons to view the same physical documents, and one can see why these virtual workspaces are gaining popularity.
Third are mass-meeting technologies such as Go to Meeting and other conferencing software systems. Today’s annual subscription fee of $468 (or thereabouts) is less than the cost of a single coast-to-coast round trip airline ticket in cabin-class. Last time I checked, a corporate account on Go to Meeting allowed 25 separate loci for attendees of the same online meeting. That’s bound to be increased as competition increases and the cost of upgrading the “program” decreases. Consider the impact upon demand for conference space within the suite your office occupies. Now, consider the local commuting time-savings of your team members, not to mention the savings in petrol costs. Of course, no one imagines that in most companies, management will require the full elimination of face to face group encounters; there will always be a need, especially in the creative enterprise sectors, to “look the other person in the eye,” not to mention waving your hands or drawing as you describe with enthusiasm or vigor what you are trying to articulate on a conceptual level But routine meetings (think of the weekly staff department meeting – do you think Dilbert will miss those?) are going to be gradually phased out by those companies that master the elementary instructions of the conferencing systems to integrate graphics, power point presentations and spreadsheets into their collaborative gatherings.
Communications technologies will improve to the point where, in many industries and companies, staffing functions are entirely outsourced to online providers of goods and services such as accounting and library/source-material functions. One illustration of this advance is a British law firm, Temple Bright. The firm’s commercial practice is based in Bristol, England, but its accounts services and law library are entirely based on the Internet. The firm’s plan is to offer flexible work hours and higher compensation by shedding traditional law firm infrastructure and substituting technology, thereby offering greater value for the fees charged. Theirs is a no-staff, paperless business model. When the present generation of Internet-anxious lead partners retires, professional offices in law, accountancy, insurance and similar industries that do not feature incessant customer interaction will accelerate the transition to this custom.
The reallocation of interior space, and the shrinkage in square footage that a distributed workforce, coupled with integration of newer, more portable and less physically space-intensive technologies, will be pronounced. How will that new interior appear, and for what purposes will space be employed? More will appear in the following posts on the future of the workforce and management attitudes toward physical infrastructure. That in turn will lead to a discussion of what directions office land planning and development may take.