After a brainstorming session with about 50 employees of Brunel Engineering last week I was asked to write a piece on the workplace of the future.
How are workplaces will look like in 20 years depend on two basic factors. One factor is the development of technological instruments to aid us in our work. Think all those IT-related things such as the speed and capacities of computers, networks and data storage systems. Scientific insights are put to work to make these instruments easier and more effective to use. Improved understanding of human cognitive and neural processes 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 my become the major bottleneck in improving the effectiveness of office workers. Techno-scientific developments tend to out pace 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 workers ability to absorb the skills required to use new tools to do things better or to do better things for the organisations they are a part of. The type of work is also relevant. Graphics designers, architect 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 due with the same word processors we use today. Some people may perform relatively simple administrative tasks in an organisations with a low level of automation while another performs complex, creative and knowledge intensive work were the limits of technology are sought. Thé office of he future therefore does not exist.
In 2028 many officeworkers will still be behinds desks wile others will be plugged into the Internet from somewhere 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-cvreative 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.