Office of the Future, 1922 prediction
In 1985, in the Harvard Business Review Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti foresaw in 1985 at the birth of the wireless phone that the era of the that you went to and sat at a desk was over; they noted that Your office is where you are. They were off by about 25 years; it takes time for technological innovation to percolate through and cause real change. They also didn't go far enough, thinking only about the promise of being able to talk on the phone; now the technology is getting so small that your office isn't just where you are, it's in your pants.
Sami Grover 's post 5 Innovations to Make Telecommuting Easy & Green raised some interesting questions. Is telecommuting supposed to replicate our office experience at home, or actually change the way we work?
Michael Caine, tied to the Billion Dollar Brain
The fact is, Aerons and fancy ergonomic chairs were a response to the need to be in one place to work in front of an immobile piece of equipment, be it a telephone, a typewriter or a desktop computer. Video conferencing is an attempt to replicate an office interaction experience online, but what is the worst single life-draining experience in offices? Meetings. The modern online workplace should not be an attempt to replicate the office, it should move beyond it. We can be MORE effective and efficient. Here are six more trends that might be shaping the way we do our jobs in the future.
1. The death of videoconferencing
We have tried OOVOO and TinyChat and all of the multiple window video conferencing systems. Everyone looked a bit embarrassed and spent their time looking at the screen, trying to look like they were interested. It really did remind me of a bad episode of the Hollywood Squares.
But I also have six different Skype text chats going at once, where I can look over and get a quick grab of what is going on. When my editor has a comment on something, I can decide to drop everything and respond to her or finish what I am doing. I use Skype video for perhaps 2% of my interactions with my co-workers because it is less efficient. Multiply that by five or ten on a video conference and the time wasted goes up exponentially.
At TreeHugger we have about 1.5 voice chats every day, and I will admit to not giving them all 100% of my attention, working on posts or catching up on my reader during the call. If they were video I couldn't get away with that. But to even do what we do now, voice only, contributors relocate from coffee shops to quiet venues, reorganize their day because voice requires that the kids and dogs and firetrucks not provide the background soundtrack.
If you care about efficiency and connection, text beats voice beats video hands down. If you care about productivity, do text. If you care about control, do video conferencing.
2. The End of An Aeron
Why do we need ergonomic chairs? People can work anywhere under almost any circumstances. Many TreeHuggers use standing desks; others go to coffee shops; it is summer and I am up in the woods just outside of Algonquin Park and I can work from a log. You need a thousand dollar chair when you are stuck in one place for the entire day because of the technology you have to work with.
The Aeron and all of the other fancy and expensive stuff designed to deal with repetitive stress and being in one place all the time. They don't have a function if you can stand up, move around, go wherever you want to go and still do your work. And that is where the workplace is going. The log on the beach will beat the Aeron every time.
My desk this morning
3. Internet Everywhere
In almost every business, communication is key. One used to be tied to a landline office phone (we won't even go to the secretary who had to type up what you wanted to say) and then a fax and a copier and a printer; they are history. Everything that used to fill up your desk, from the inbox to the big CRT monitor to the beloved red stapler, they are history. Communication now comes to you, not you to it.
Three years ago, to spend my summer in the woods, I had to drive into the nearest town and borrow internet from a local builder. For the last two years, I relied on an expensive satellite system and had to fight with latency issues (the time it took for the signal to bounce off the satellite and back), a killer for modern websites. This year I have a tiny little stick on the side of my computer, pulling it in through the 3G cellphone network. I can work on the dock or on the dining room table.
4. The desk is dead
Now it is true that in the age of the pen and paper, before even the typewriter, when you could write anywhere, people had desks in offices. But Mr. Scrooge had to talk to Tom Cratchit and had records in a fixed place that had to be accessible. Now it can be completely ephemeral, in the cloud; I recently had to do a big presentation to TreeHugger writers from San Francisco to Berlin, and used the free Google Presentation software to show the images and Skype to give the audio. It was not quite as persuasive as a Keynote or Powerpoint where we are all in the room, but I was sitting on a folding chair in a cabin in the woods connected by a 3G stick and could pull it off. Between Google Docs and Evernote I don't even care what computer I work on. The desk is dead.
5 Co-Working is Kaput
Sami talkes about co-working giving you "all the benefits of a professional office within your own community". I used to write about them glowingly. But that was when one might need access to a scanner, a photocopier or a good internet connection. Who needs that now, when your phone can act as a scanner and internet is omnipresent. If you have to get out of the house to work, there are a lot of coffee shops that will be happy to have your custom. Co-working was a great idea five years ago, but I suspect that it is going the way of internet incubators.
6. Smart Phones
Here is the one point on which I agree with Sami; the new technology is continuing to make our physical footprint smaller and give us greater flexibility. I have only played with an iPad a few times but I have no doubt that in a year or two I will be working on a device like it, continuously connected with a device small enough to take anywhere. We are getting to the point that not only is your office where you are, your office is in your pants.