Forget beanbags and ping pong tables, the office of the future will fundamentally change how we work. Through a combination of green and digital technologies, the worker of tomorrow is likely to operate in an environment that is smarter, healthier and more sustainable. Although whether we’ll also say goodbye to office politics remains a moot point.
The buildings in which we work have a huge impact on the nature of the work we do. A Harvard study has revealed that offices with better ventilation, more natural light and median temperatures boost workers’ performance and productivity, as well as helping them sleep more soundly when they get home.
These factors also dovetail with green concerns, so the office of the future is likely to consider such qualities a priority. You can also forget the idea of being tied to a desk in one place. Instead people will be encouraged to move around and hotdesk. As we all know, being on the move helps with thought processes – how many times when you’ve been stumped for a solution has that walk to the kitchen made the difference? Moving around also gives you a chance to cross paths with colleagues and get feedback on ideas.
This approach is already being used by Silicon Valley’s big hitters like Google and Facebook, where office space is planned in such a way as to encourage employees into serendipitous encounters – ‘bumps’ as they call them – where new ideas and approaches can be thrashed out.
The forest in the office
Expect such mobility to be accompanied by a greater knowledge of precisely what’s going on throughout the workspace. Phone apps, cloud computing and wearable tech will show which areas are busy and which are quiet, what meeting is happening where, and who is in or out of the office. So if you need somewhere quiet to concentrate, you know where to go – likewise if you want to feel the buzz of colleagues or hunt down someone for a face-to-face chat.
Wherever you are in the office, you’ll find it is increasingly verdant, since research shows that even with a few houseplants dotted about, employees are more productive. In the future, this is may well combine with the concept of ‘living buildings’ such as the Bosco Verticale in Milan, creating meeting areas that not only give people space to meet and think, but which also provide a more oxygen-rich atmosphere, meaning less need for artificial ventilation.
Solar energy is set to play a huge part in the office of the future, to power the building itself and even distribute energy to the surrounding neighbourhood as part of a ‘smart city’ infrastructure. It can already been seen in buildings like The Edge in Amsterdam, which even persuaded the neighbouring university to install further rooftop panels in return for free use of spare electricity.
But light will be used in other ways too. The ecoLogic Studio has pioneered what it calls bio-digital architecture. This uses ‘bioreactor’ panels that contain algae, which grows according to the amount of sunlight exposure. As a result, the panels provide more shade in summer and less in winter, creating a natural temperature system for the building. What’s more, the algae can then be siphoned off and harvested for food or energy in the shape of bio-fuel.
Another feature we’re destined to see more of in the future office is the slanted roof or atrium, used to drain off rainwater and channel it into troughs. The collected water is then integrated into the plumbing system and re-used for tasks such as flushing toilets.
As well as utilising energy from the sun and rain, expect to see wind power being further exploited too, although the technology will need to be more advanced than it presently is – neither the wind turbines in the Bahrain World Trade Centre or the Strata Tower in London have proved especially successful so far.
When it comes to digital hi-tech, the future office is bound to become an increasingly virtual space. Young workers beginning their careers today are digital natives who have spent most of their lives with a smartphone, so the use of apps is already the norm.
The aforementioned The Edge building already features apps to adjust the temperature of the immediate environment, book meeting rooms, and even open lockers and check in at desks.
The IoT (Internet of Things) and 3D printing will mean you can expect shape-shifting furniture, your desk and chair moulded to your unique specifications. And check out the other-worldly dynamic furniture concept by Transform, although we would hazard a guess that such desks are some way off yet.
The same goes for table-top holographic display, which is in reality fiendishly difficult to pull off, despite its standard use in science fiction films. What we’re already seeing instead are innovations such as the Jenkins Steel robot used by First Light PR, which operates like an avatar for someone out of the office. The absentee can control it remotely, moving it around the workspace and interacting with colleagues, even though they might be hundreds of miles away. Just don’t expect Hollywood-style special effects.
What will become commonplace in the near future of the office is the ability to project screen images onto any surface using any device. Small, watch-sized devices can already project larger images onto walls and screens, and with the development of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technologies and nanotech, we are already moving into this world – your computer of the future could simply be a projection of a screen and a keyboard on whatever surface is appropriate.
So the future office is looking like a brighter, greener and more welcoming environment, the kind of place that’ll make you want to get out of bed in the morning. And even if you don’t, you can always pick up the remote on the bedside table and activate your office avatar instead.