Technological innovation, globalisation, geographical shifts in economic power and the changing demographics of the working population, has significantly changed the way work is conducted in today’s world. The workplace therefore is naturally undergoing changes to adapt to the new work and workers.
At first sight, the office of the future may be structurally deceptively similar to the typical workplace today, with employees still sitting at their desks, meeting in conference rooms and taking designated lunch breaks. There sure will be some visible changes, with more open-plan configurations, and new gizmos replacing today’s laptops and display devices, but the fundamental changes to the office environment would not necessarily be visible to the casual observer. With tele-working and flexible work schedules becoming more the norm than exception in the service sector, the office could lose its significance as the primary location of service and revenue generation, and become more of a meeting and coordination centre. Fixed hours, fixed location, and fixed jobs are on their way to becoming a thing of the past for many industries, as opportunities become more fluid and less predictable. The 40-hour employer mandated workweek will become less relevant as more firms leverage new age communication technologies to outsource complex projects to subcontractors, temps, and freelancers, who will log-in from cafeteria and airport lounge or home offices across the globe to collaborate and complete their work. In the United States, freelancers and subcontractors already comprise one-third of the workforce, and their numbers keep growing in an economy that is at best unpredictable.
Location-based and formal jobs will continue to exist, of course, these will become smaller slices of the overall economy. Manufacturing, agriculture, health care as well as administrative and public services will need the presence of workers on location, but technology and automation will make human intervention minimal. Some futurists have predicted the obsolescence of the corporate headquarters or the central office, but that does not seem to be likely in the near future. The increasing necessity of collaboration with the external stakeholder and the face-to-face teamwork, which would be necessary to coordinate increasingly complex projects, would keep the physical corporate office relevant. Office plans would become modular and flexible to adapt to the changing needs of the organisation.
The other fundamental change that we see happening in the workspace is in the way we measure and reward outcomes and performance. While even today many organisations measure and reward performance based on rigid and fixed working place and timings, progressive organisations are embracing the idea of measuring and rewarding performance on the basis of output and results rather than long unproductive hours. Research has produced overwhelming evidence that employees are more productive if they have greater autonomy over where, when and how they work. The Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) work system which measures performance on the basis of results, has taken off in the private sector, and shown significant improvement in performance and job satisfaction. With governments and public sector organisations also focussing more on results, the future of the workplace looks to be more result oriented. These changes, unlike those in the physical work environment, are deep cultural changes in the way we conduct ourselves at work and away, and could be unpalatable to some. But then, as celebrated futurist Alvin Toffler said, “Change is not merely necessary to life - it is life.”