ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Digital Omnipresence and the Rise of Ubiquitous Office

By Robert Niewiadomski, Dennis Anderson

The modern office evolved from work spaces developed during the Industrial Revolution. Its basic function and physical space very much remained unchanged since. The explosion of manufacturing and commercial activities required a sophisticated system of administrative management run by an army of clerks. They had to be housed in a designated space, typically a large room, equipped with suitable infrastructure. This concentration of employees in a single space had major advantage. It created conditions for the sharing and maximization of resources. Moreover, it allowed the supervisors to view the staff easily, mostly due to the application of the flat top “modern efficiency desk.” Long rows of these desks with spaces in-between were ideal for convenient navigation of the workplace by supervising personnel. It was later realized this constant panopticism was not great for efficiency or innovative culture after all, and some degree of privacy was provided by the so familiar cubicle system [1]. The issue of the constant supervisory gaze, however, came back again later with the computerization of offices and central monitoring of staff activities online.   

This concentration of clerks in a specified space and during specified hours led to an emergence of certain type of group dynamics, habits and staff interactions known as “office culture.” It provided a certain rhythm of life that eventually became the common, 9-5 workday. Likewise, it compartmentalized urban life into two distinct, and previously mostly unknown, spheres—work and private time.

This is the past, so how will the office of tomorrow look? Already “distance work” or working from home gives us a glimpse of the changing landscape of office culture. These are not, however, signs of the dramatic shift that is yet to come. Home offices are not as flexible as they seem to be. They still require the worker to be in a specific place, on specific floor, and often during a specific time, in order to virtually stay in touch with coworkers, but primarily to use the necessary infrastructure that might be not available elsewhere. Surely, anybody can do some work while sitting in a cafe or any other place with Wi-Fi, but things are not as simple when you need to print out hard copy on the spot, conduct a teleconference with multiple participants, lead team meetings, etc.

Changes in the post-industrial society and generational shift play important roles as well. Millennials typically display aversion to cubicles and prefer less formal, “coffee place” style of interactions where the line between the “professional” and “personal” is blurred. They favor a work environment that provides plenty of opportunity for social encounters, private talking, and unconstrained movement that allows free exchange of ideas and stimulates creativity, which is so important in today’s information economy. This predilection might have to do with the rise of entrepreneur or startup culture that thrives in more casual, shared spaces.

The informal “start up” kind of office enters the main stream; a CEO sitting amongst other workers is becoming a norm. Goggle, for example, allows their employees to freely interact, take breaks, entertain themselves whenever needed, and other perks to make them “feel at home.” This comes with a number of potential benefits for the business. It could lower office stress and strengthen the worker’s ties to the company. Furthermore, it eliminates the work-private life dichotomy. Consequently, employees might feel they are perpetually at work because you never know when the “creative moment” might occur. The idea of “flattening” organizational structure has been a part of many corporate restructuring strategies, adopted particularly by mega companies that are having difficulty competing with nimble startups.

To imagine what the office of the future could look like—let’s say, in a decade—we should look at some of current technological phenomena and the speed in which they come about. The first major indicator came with the introduction of the iPhone, which “gave employees access to a range of information previously available only from fixed sources like laptops and the hand-scrawled charts of weekly staff meetings” [2]. A plethora of adjacent technologies continues to transform the modern workplace: ubiquitous Wi-Fi, Internet of Things (IoT), cloud-based services, and more powerful batteries that might eventually eliminate the traditional wall outlet. Some other transformations will most likely follow: 3-D printing will lead to quick and precise furniture customization based on individual body profiles; computer monitors could potentially be merged with any surface into interactive and collaborative surfaces; lastly, let’s not underestimate AI that “will infuse every part of our future work lives” [2]

 

But what is stopping us from pushing this vision even further? Adaptable spaces powered by AI infrastructure could allow anyone to do any type of office work anywhere. Imagine instead of going to the “office,” you visit your friends’ house, hang out, and then take a break from socializing by using their devices together with your digital identity to turn their home into your office? Surely, your friends might get annoyed, but your job will get done. The infrastructure allowing this to happen is not a matter of future invention. It is already here and expanding. The phenomenon of IoT, for instance, could transform any place into a flexible infused with AI “smart space.” It would, essentially, create networks of objects “infused” with electronics, software, sensors, and Internet connectivity. And with cloud-based applications IoT could turn any space into an office, home, and leisure place—all in one. The question then is not if, but how big could the IoT get and how fast? Experts estimate that the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion objects by 2020 [3]

However, in addition to legitimate ethical concern about privacy autonomy, and control, not everybody, thinks such ubiquitous office would be good for increasing productivity. According to a report published in Harvard Business Review, the increased individualization of this office model might be actually counterproductive [4]. The authors claim face-to-face encounters are the driving force in the knowledge economy, and the technology we use to work remotely plays a secondary role. Obviously, there is no reason to believe the office of the future would eradicate face-to-face interactions altogether. The office as we know it might withstand, after all, perhaps by taking a shape of a sort of “Victorian gentleman’s club with its sofas and conversation corners” [5]. Such transformation would not be drastically different from the relaxed, informal, conversation-rich, and thought stimulating model we observe in some companies today. Nevertheless, even proponents of such view agree we will be dealing with an entire portfolio of workspaces, “so we can use a different one every day” [5].

Even though we cannot be sure what the future has in store for us, what we can extrapolate from the digital omnipresence brought about by the iPhone in less than eight years is that IoT will change how, where, and when we work. Today, most people still have to travel to some office, but perhaps soon the office, for better or for worse, will travel with them.  

 

References

[1] Long, Kim. The History of Office Buildings. User Effective Buildings. Denver, CO: Aardex Corporation, 2004.

[2] Howder, Randy. The Office of the Future: More Comfortable, and Even More Untethered. The Wall Street Journal 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.

[3] Howard, Philip N. Sketching out the Internet of Things Trendline. The Brookings Institution. 9 June 2015. Web. 18 Aug. 2015. 

[4] Waber, Ben, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay. Workspaces That Move People. Harvard Business Review. 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.

[5] Dishman, Lydia. Forget What You Think You Know About The Office Of The Future. Fast Company. 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.

 

 

 

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