How are workplaces will look like in 20 years depends on two basic factors. One factor is the development of technology to aid us in our work. Think of all those IT-related things such as the speed and capacities of computers, networks and data storage systems. The Windows-icon-mouse paradigm developed by Xerox in the seventies has been enourmously refined over the last 25 years. This has made computers usable for almost everyone but is certainly not the end point. In the coming years scientific insights will make gadgets even easier to use and more effective. An improved understanding of human cognitive and neural processes will allow for better information-processing tools. Then there is the physical location (slowly but surely becoming less important); new materials make for better chairs, desks and ultimately an entire building specifically designed to facilitate mental work.
The other factor is us. Our (in)ability to actually use all these tools effectively may become the major bottleneck in improving the efficency of office workers. Techno-scientific developments tend to outpace the ability to change of most organisations (and the people in them) by at least a decade or two. There will be major difference between and within organisations. Age, education, upbringing and attitude will all be factors determining a worker's ability to absorb the skills required to use new tools to do things better or to do better things for their organisations.
The paperless office has been technically possible for 15 years at least but old habits die hard and cheap IT also means cheap and fast printers. For the time being our useage of paper is on the rise. Small start-ups are often the first paperless organisations existing today. New organisations can also abandon classical hierarchical structures. Open source communities very efficiently developed the complex systems underpinning the Internet, without any formal organisation or payment. But even in these communities of early techno-adopters there is a need to meet up in a physical place every now and then.
The type of work is also relevant. Graphics designers, architects and other creatives usually want and need the best possible tools and know-how to use them. Someone writing a policy document can probably make do with the same word processors we use today. Some people may perform relatively simple administrative tasks in an organisation with a low level of automation, while another may perform complex, creative and knowledge intensive work where the limits of technology are sought. Thé office of the future therefore does not exist.
In 2028 many office workers will still be behind desks while others will be plugged into the Internet from anywhere on the planet. Some of them will work alone, but more will work in teams assisted by intelligent systems that take most of the analytical and non-creative work out of their hands. Education, training, good leadership and access to communities of knowledge will be the determining factors of their productivity and creativity.