This was a piece I was asked to do for a BBC World Service segment on the office of the future. It was broadcast a couple of days ago. Here’s the full broadcast:
Needless to say the piece has nothing do with my present work environment, which is charming and healthy.
The office of 2050, I’m hoping, won’t be an office at all, because by then we’ll have realised that it’s the most unproductive, unhealthy and expensive environment a business could create.
I won’t bore you with the details but think spinal diseases and, varicose veins from sitting down, allergies from the awful air, and psychological disorders caused by the stress and monotony of office work. Indeed, strip away the fancy screens and chairs and someone from a Charles Dickens book wouldn’t have much trouble navigating our office of today. Rewind to 1974 — 38 years ago, instead of 38 years hence — and the difference would just be computers replacing blotters and typewriters.
In short, technology has altered the way we work but now where we work, and for the most part, what we work on. Things have just speeded up.
So the first thing that will change is that we’ll have thrown out the idea of an office. Many of us already do that, trading our expensive allegedly ergonomic chair and desk for a rickety wooden chair and table in Starbucks. This trend will continue as jobs become more specialised and it becomes harder to persuade talent to move city, commute or even sit at a desk.
By then they’ll be using their own tools, working to their own rhythm.
What will those tools be? They’ll be very small, highly personalised and ubiquitous. If I was still around then, and had a bigger brain than I do at present, I’d be probably be replacing dry stone walls in the Peak District to keep my brain in shape, stopping occasionally to add dabs of color and code to a project which would appear on a lens grafted onto my left eye, all of it done simply by mind control. The bill for my work would be automatically generated and settled instantaneously via a downpayment on my chalet in Luang Prabang.
In short, the office won’t exist because we’ll have discovered, belatedly, that the sense of job security is a false one. Companies will rise and fall so quickly it won’t make sense to do so, and even for those behemoths that can shapeshift fast enough to remain competitive, those with smarts won’t confine themselves to one hierarchy or the deadening office politics that goes with it.
Organisations will have a CEO and a few other big shots, and then a precipitous drop to those who keep the lights on and get the boss’ tea. Everyone else will either have been replaced by robots or be outsourced. But these won’t be the disposable call center ciphers we think of today; they’ll be constantly updating their skills and offering such specialized services that it is they who will control the relationship, not the other way round.
By then, you see, organisations and those who invest in them will have woken up to the fact that the most valuable asset will be highly specialised, highly motivated, highly entrepreneurial individuals, and these individuals won’t let themselves be tied to any single location or employer.
You can see some of this already, in the way Western startups operate — often highly flexible, where employees may be in the same state but never meet. You can also see it in online outsourcing, where companies are increasingly depending on workers overseas — not for mindless grunt work, but for their tireless yearning for quality workmanship, self-improvement and job satisfaction.
The future of the office lies not in the office, but in the relentless drive away from its drab four walls.