24.07.19

The office of 2025: Agile and flexible

office of the future 1

What will the office of 2025 look like? Paul Milligan looks at changing attitudes and developing technology to predict how our work lives could change.

Nothing can you make you look more ridiculous than trying to product the future.  By now we were all told jet packs and hover boards would be common place (if movies and magazines were to be believed) in society, the truth is somewhat more ordinary.  And the same can be said for the places we work.  Not much has changed in the workplace post-war.  We all sit in the same building every day, at the same desk, answering phone calls and responding to correspondence just as we always have. If major changes were to happen it would involve overturning 50 years of learned behaviour, and that won’t happen overnight. if we are to look at the office of 2025 its best to assume the changes will be subtle improvements on what we have now, rather than a complete evolution.

The biggest change happening in offices around the world right now is flexibility, it’s having the opportunity to work somewhere else than sat at your desk in the office, it’s having the opportunity to work flexible hours, rather than the prescribed 9-5. Earlier this year the International Workplace Group (IWG, formerly known as Regus) published a survey of more than 15,000 business people from over 80 countries.  It found that over half of employees globally are working outside of their main office headquarters for at least 2.5 days a week. The demand for flexible working is also increasing year on year; worker demand is up to 75% from 70% in 2017. “Even though flexible working is a people-driven movement (for now), business leaders are fully aware flexible working has made their business more productive (85%), but a remarkable 67% think that flexibility can improve productivity by at least a fifth,” says IWG UK CEO, Richard Morris.  Flexible working is becoming so popular that several countries have included it in their legislation. A recent Regus report estimated that by 2030, the US could see an economic boost of as much as $4.5 trillion annually from flexible working.

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Technology plays a huge part in providing worker flexibility.  We all have smartphone and laptops, which can be used on the go, wherever we go, with a myriad of free or cheap software at your disposal.  You don’t have a video conferencing app on your phone? Well you can download one while you wait 2 minutes for the next bus. However changing the mindset of workers who have only known one way of working (you sit at a desk for 8 hours, you go home) will take time.  In its most recent Workplace Survey, Regus found the biggest obstacle for businesses looking to implement a flexible workspace policy was ‘changing a long-standing, non-flexible working culture at a company’ by some distance over the other options available. Technology can free us, but can also lock us in too.  In the Regus report 42% of business people (in the UK) cited technology requirements as one of the biggest barriers for companies wanting to switch to flexible working.  The opportunity, and the potential for change is huge, if, and only if these barriers can be overcome.

activity-based working

One aspect which could change in the office of 2025 is in how they are designed. Google is always held up as the example of new thinking when it comes to office design, with bean bags instead of chairs, slides and tennis tables etc all installed to encourage free thinking and creativity. Microsoft is another who has played around with traditional office design and has recently built two treehouses for its staff to use as meeting rooms in its Seattle HQ, to benefit from ‘the impact of nature on creativity, focus, and happiness’. While its easy to scoff, would you rather sit in a beige 1960s room with no windows to have a meeting, or sit in a fully-equipped treehouse? I know which I’d prefer.

In the last three years we have seen the rise of huddle rooms, as end users prioritise less structure and more informality in their meeting spaces and there is no reason to think this trend will continue well into 2025. Hopefully the issues regarding the provision of non-polluting audio for those spaces will be solved by then, one example of a potential solution is a spatial audio system Sony is currently developing (Sonic Surf VR), which is highly directional to a small spot, with no detectable audio once the user moves from that ‘sweet spot’.  Collaboration will continue to be a hot topic, and we have the potential to see some real movement by 2025 of holographic video conferencing systems that are only at prototype stage right now.  While it make seem a little ‘Star Trek’, the ability for a video meeting to offer life-size participants could be a huge step up for a technology where eye-to-eye contact is still virtually impossible.

The rise of huddle rooms is part of a larger movement called activity-based working (ABW) which gives workers an opportunity to choose a place in the office where it is most suitable for them to complete their work tasks.  This makes perfect sense says Stijn Ooms, technology director, Crestron Europe. “The biggest architectural firms we talk to are already embracing it (ABW). We have done activity-based working already for thousands of years in our homes, but we don't do that in the office. We have a bed in the bedroom to sleep so we have a specific room to sleep in. We have a specific room to do our work, and one to relax in (our living room). You don’t put a dishwasher in your living room because that wouldn’t be on logical, but we do these type of things in an enterprise. We put several functions together in one room.” The rise of more informal meeting spaces like huddle rooms is also a reaction to traditional open plan office design. What was seen as radical then isn’t fit for purpose now.  Professor Stephen Heppell, an expert on how to create flexible work and learning spaces says, ‘open plan’ conjures up images of poor 1960s design, bad acoustics and uninspiring paintwork, preferring design to provide ‘agile’ spaces.  

One huge factor in how the office of 2025 will look and feel will be millennials, lots of them.  By 2020, millennials are expected to make up about 50% of the workforce, and by 2025 this number is projected to be 75%. They are, by all accounts, going to be the largest generation ever to enter the workforce, by contrast, by comparison, the generation before them, Gen X represents only 16% of today's workforce. Millennials have grown up with technology, and are willing to live at home for longer to find a company they truly want to work for.  This means companies must create an environment where people want to work there, rather than out of financial necessity. This also comes back to flexible working and office design.  Millennials want to work in a well-designed office space, they work to work flexible hours and have technology that can be flexible, to them the culture of the workplace is as important as the salary and benefits. In order to attract the best staff companies are going to have to be forced to respond to these needs, or risk losing or not keeping valuable members of staff to rival firms.

BYOA

We have heard all about BYOD, but coming next is BYOA (Bring Your Own App), again driven by millennials whose working styles are individual and customised. How they work and collaborate is based on the ability to use their own preferred apps, not what has been approved by the IT dept. From now until 2025, staff will demand to use their own apps and devices in the workplace, so it in the interests of companies to design a workplace equipped to handle this.

Knowing what products will be significant in 2025 is difficult to say with any certainty. In fact one manufacturer we approached to take part in this piece declined because it didn’t want to reveal its roadmap to its competitors. So all we can do is look at prototypes we feel will gain traction in the marketplace.  One such concept which could see real use in the office of 2025 is Mt Rogers from Microsoft (BELOW). It is currently developing a VR headset which offers its users as many virtual monitors as they want.  Imagine working on a huge excel spreadsheet and being able to see 6, 8 or 12 screens at once, without taking up any more desk space than you already do. The applications for this tech go right across the board from data analysts and designers, to mobile workers who can’t access their whole office set-up.  

microsoft mt rogers VR

Data is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in our work lives, and how we use it to our advantage will be a reoccurring theme over the next decade. US company Humanyze has created what it’s called ‘sociometric ID badges’, which is a combination of infrared sensors, accelerometers, Bluetooth and microphones, which enable them to collect data such as employee movements, encounters, speech patterns and posture. Too allay any privacy issues Humanyze says all data collected is anonymous. Clients can cross-reference the data with information such as sales, revenue and retention rates. The results can then be analysed to find which encounters and behaviours are making contributions to the company. UK based OccupEye is another company developing data-driven design for offices of the future. Their sensors, fitted under desktops and tables, help understand space usage and improve workplace utilisation. Office furniture manufacturer Humanscale is also using IoT and data to monitor office life. Its OfficeIQ sensor can send workers alerts when they've been sitting or standing too long and give data on sitting/standing habits. Companies can also use the sit/stand data to improve utilisation and occupancy.

5G, which is launching this summer across many cities in Europe, is expected to be a huge boost for mobile working because of the increased download speeds it can provide.  It could also help the development of new products and technology by linking new technologies to the internet. However, bearing in mind 4G was launched in 2010, by 2025 6G could well be on the horizon, if not the norm already.  4K is the default display resolution right now, which is being driven by the consumer market.  8K is already on the horizon, so is it safe to assume that it will be the norm by 2025? “The way display technology is advancing is actually capable of moving faster than the market is capable of adopting it. It was a pretty big step in terms of user adoption from full HD to UHD. If you're quadrupling the number of pixels again, then it's a significant bigger problem,” says Drew Rogers, senior product manager, large format displays, Samsung. “Previously, when we launched UHD we didn't have the system-on-chip capability at the time, and it took us about a year to catch up.  With 8K we are there already with the processing technology, and so we're able to release the display and the processing at the same time. Who knows, next time 16K processing might be available ahead of the display.”

Voice control has entered our homes in the last 12 months but has not yet made any impact in our offices.  Speaking to many of the big players in the control market at InfoComm 2019, I fully expect this to have changed by 2025.  As we saw with the iPad, consumer tech (when done well) undoubtedly then impacts on the proAV world, it’s the ‘I have this at home, why can’t I have this in my office?’ mentality.  AI is undeniably going to impact on our working lives in 2025. The actual size of the impact is impossible to predict because the applications AI could benefit are limitless. Is AI something to fear in the workplace? The initial predictions seem to be that AI will create as many jobs as it will make redundant. In the short term we will see AI’s impact in things like Amazon’s Alexa for Business, which can automatically book you a meeting room, or it can sync with software like Salesforce. AI's ability to guide, and adapt to, workers' preferences for noise, layout, and workflow could be its greatest asset. The technology might eventually map a worker’s ideal work environment so well that it foresees problems before they arise, potentially saving time and money for HR managers and FM teams.

Something we have seen in the last few years is that technology is having to change as our needs are changing.  Technology used to dictate the changes we made, now users are making the demands.  We want more flexibility, and our technology is being tasked with providing that, in the office or out on the road. The office of 2025 is going to be a less rigid, more individual, less one-size-fits-all approach than it has ever been before. Will be fully get to that point by 2025? Watch this space.