The business workplace of the future

While the 19th century had the factory, the 20th century became notorious for the office. Kathleen Hall takes a look at how the workplace is set to change as we advance deeper into the 21st century.

It’s easy to underestimate the emancipating power of technology. From the washing machine and vacuum cleaner to the Saturn V rocket, scientists have come up with ideas that have revolutionised daily lives and pushed the boundaries of the human imagination.

The hope over the next few years is that technology will free people up from being shackled to their desks. A report by office services company Regus on future workplace models found that 28 per cent of the 1,130 respondents were planning to grant employees greater freedom over when and where they work. Moreover, 40 per cent are changing their workplace models to become more collaborative.

Overly precise predictions about the future are uniquely prone to failure. Think of Alex Lewyt’s nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners or marketing men in the 1960s boasting that computers would create the paperless office. Of course, innovation isn’t always necessarily for the good, and the fear remains that the latest gadgets and bits of electronic wizardry won’t create freedom for the majority of people – employees will simply have to work longer and harder as the lines are blurred between office hours and free time. Here is ours take on how technology will shake up the workplace of tomorrow.

Head into the cloud

Whether it’s software-as-a-service, the cloud or plain old hosted IT services, the internet remains the new frontier of business change. Robert Epstein, head of small business sales and marketing at Microsoft, says we are on the cusp of an IT revolution. ‘The cloud is a massive opportunity for growing businesses, as it means they can take on the same competitive technology as larger companies, but without having to lay down huge amounts of investment.’

Epstein says that the cloud encompasses all the benefits of the latest software solutions. ‘The cloud constitutes a whole new way of employing and acquiring IT, shifting expenditure from capex to opex costs. Businesses are using it to install things like customer relationship management systems, which can add a huge value to the business and are something that would normally represent a significant upfront cost.’

Integrated services

Peter Czapp, director of accountancy firm The Wow Company, says that in just three years collaboration technology has transformed the business. ‘Back then, each laptop had duplicate information on it. There was no single up-to-date version of anything and no-one could access anyone else’s information. It would have been impossible to grow efficiently without the technology we implemented.’

Now, if a client calls with a query, Czapp says that anyone in the company can access their entire history: ‘Our turnover has increased because we can offer a better service. It’s been a key element in our fast growth.’

Impervious to catastrophe

After suffering a burglary, Mark Houlding, founder of PR company Rostrum Communications, was grateful he had in place an effective business continuity plan.

‘My work laptop was stolen from home, but because everything was saved though our online backup service, the next morning I was in the physical office using the spare laptop as if nothing had happened.’

Czapp agrees that having backup systems in place offers vital protection against unforeseen circumstances. ‘Through our backup systems, all our employees can work from home, which meant that when the snow hit earlier this year, we could afford to be relaxed about it,’ he says.

No need to clock in

Easily available internet access and speedier connections mean that it’s easier than it ever has been to work away from the office. Microsoft’s Epstein believes that one of the biggest impacts technology is having on business is the flexibility it gives to working. ‘With laptops and smart phones, most people can now work from anywhere. The downside is that work life may start intruding on home life. But for me, it now means I can go to all my kids’ plays and fit work around them,’ he says.

Better connected

Star Trek-style communicators may still be some way off for businesses, but being tied to a landline is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Due to cheaper and faster broadband availability, businesses are migrating from traditional telephone systems to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) as a way to reduce monthly phone costs, says Adam Collins at BT. ‘IP telephony and “unified communications” services are starting to be adopted by more small businesses as the price comes down,’ he says.

For Jasper Westaway, founder of software start-up Onedrum, VoIP is an essential tool for communicating with his employees, as all staff are based at home. ‘I need to talk to colleagues regularly, so everyone is connected to Skype. I leave the phone line open the whole time and if I need to ask someone a question, I just shout out,’ says Westaway.

Web-wise

Wendy Shand, founder of child holiday accommodation advice site Tots to Travel, runs her business from home, managing agents across Europe through the medium of web-conferencing.

‘The way things are going, we’re going to see a greater dependence on video streaming through websites and better relationships [with customers through] video and internet telephony,’ she says, adding that it saves on costs too.  ‘If it wasn’t for technology, the company wouldn’t exist. We’d need to have people physically working here in our office, and that’s a very expensive cost.’

Touch technology

The vision of Tom Cruise in Minority Report weaving data between his fingertips is close at hand. Microsoft’s Epstein believes that very soon businesses will be experiencing a more intuitive interaction with technology. ‘In the future, I think we will see more and more natural user experiences. For example, Windows 7 already has touch built into it. It will all become much more seamless for users.’

On another planet

Step into a world where there’s no recession. Second Life is a virtual landscape where you can invent your very own entrepreneur. It even has its own currency, the Linden dollar (the exchange rate being around L$250 to the US dollar). So if the everyday slog all gets too much, try the virtual equivalent.

Web 2.0 (or 3.0)

Hyped beyond belief they may be, but social networking sites are here to stay. For Shand of Tots to Travel, social networking provides a low-cost way to market her business. ‘Blogging, Twitter and Facebook are all very useful business tools, and a very immediate, vibrant way of marketing,’ she says. ‘They also allow us to easily keep up to date with what our competitors are doing.’

Intelligent software

‘In the past, all financial information tended to get locked away in a big database in the accounting department,’ says Epstein. ‘So the person in sales wouldn’t have access to the analysis of his customers. Business intelligence software puts these tools into the hands of the people who can make the most use out of them. It connects the data together, and can easily be viewed through Excel, for example.’

We are the robots

BT’s Collins predicts that businesses will start taking advantage of developments happening in robotics: ‘It won’t be so much a case of the robot doing the photocopying, but of the robot being the photocopier and walking over to you.’

Wow’s Czapp agrees: ‘Further into the future, we’ll get a greater understanding of the way minds work. Emerging technology is already starting to take advantage of that. It’s quite possible we will be able to control robots through the power of our minds.’

Girl power

The future of entrepreneurship looks decidedly female, claims Shand: ‘We’re definitely going to see more women entrepreneurs with the rise in technology. It allows them to be successful and at the same time do the things that are important to them, like being free to pick up the children. It does empower women, and as a result we will see a greater gender balance of business owners.’

Voice recognition

Software that can transcribe the spoken word into text is an area already being widely developed, says Rob Bamforth, analyst at technology consultancy Quocirca: ‘There is a whole spectrum of [voice recognition solutions], from fully manual to fully automated, and industry players are trying to move the bar closer towards automation.’ However, as the recent controversy around SpinVox suggests, there is some doubt as to whether people will ever be taken out of the equation entirely given the complexity of language and cognition. ‘You will always need some form of human oversight or quality control,’ says Bamforth.

Minimal office space

For Czapp, the major advantage of technology is the cost savings, such as using the cloud to store data: ‘Without it, we would have needed more of everything to deliver a worse service. There’s no question it has saved us a lot of money. It has made us a lot more efficient as the team spends less time rummaging around for things and we haven’t had to move to larger offices to store everything – which would have cost thousands.’

Related: Stay ahead of the curve: what are the latest office design trends?

The future is now

Developments already happening in technology will be common features in future businesses. BT’s Collins observes: ‘When you look back 40 years ago, email was in its very early stages. Likewise, emerging technologies in place today will become widely available in the following decades.’ For Collins, this includes advances such as 3D printing – a process that allows you to physically print out resin objects. Already used in industrial design and architecture as a way to create prototypes, Collins says, ‘This is something we’ll see more companies using in the future.’

As the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson put it, ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.’

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