Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age

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Last week in Amsterdam I gave the opening keynote talk at the Office Products International conference. It was about the future of the office and the future of work itself. Below is a slightly edited version of my speech. You can see the slide deck in full here: Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age

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If I say the word ‘bandwidth’, what does it make you think of? Broadband? Digital telly? Analogue radio? 3G, 4G?

Most of these are about communication. They can be measured. In frame rates and bit rates.

But what about a more short range of communication. The one between you and another person. Between you and your tools. I believe you can analyse the recent history of the office, and make some valuable assessments about its future, simply by looking at this physical and biological communications bandwidth.

My name is Tom Cheesewright and after fifteen years in the technology industry I now work as an applied futurist, helping organisations to answer a simple question: are you ready for tomorrow? My team and I work with a huge variety of organisations to help them to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.

I’ll draw on evidence from them, and third party research, to present a vision of the future of the office to you today.

I’ll focus on four trends and opportunities.

  1. Enable Bionic Business
  2. Focus on Physical Space
  3. Supply Cognitive Prosthetics
  4. Reach Shared Spaces

The View from Your Window

There’s no doubting that today the view from your window today is not a garden of roses. Office products means a lot of paper, and though the promise of the paperless office is still some way off, slow attrition is getting us ever closer.

What is driving this?

The screen has consumed everything, becoming our primary interface with data, applications, and even other people.

There’s sound business sense behind this shift. Screens and the computing power behind them have made us more efficient. More effective. They have augmented the capabilities of human beings to the point where we are more productive than ever before.

The screen presents distractions of course. But look at recent headlines: we now have multiple, multi-billion dollar companies being built and run by under a hundred people. WhatsApp had perhaps just 60 people when it was acquired by Facebook for $19bn earlier this year. Instagram. Snapchat. All small teams running products supporting hundreds of millions of people.

You might argue that the valuation of these businesses in inflated. But there’s no arguing with revenue.

In the businesses I’ve run, we’ve been happy with turnover of £100k per head. According to some analysis by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz, software as a service (SaaS) businesses typically operate with around one and a half times that.

By contrast, Google and Facebook turn over $1m per head.

How can they do this?

They can because their people are augmented by technology. They are hyper-productive because their capabilities, their processes, their interactions, their flow, is automated. These people are functionally bionic.

And they are not alone.

Like many other people I am now reliant on my digital prosthetics. I have always had a hopeless memory. I have no sense of direction. Without my smartphone and the cloud I would almost never be in the right place at the right time.

Bionic Business: The Automation Opportunity

Automation is happening. I will give some examples of how it is happening in various industries today later in the presentation. But there remains an enormous gap between the vanguard of this automation — the Googles and Facebooks of this world — and the rest of us. An opportunity that you can exploit.

Look at the tools and techniques that Google and others use: kanban, agile methods. Look at them and teach them to your customers. Then sell them the products that support these methods.

Some of these tools are digital. There are software as a service companies out there who would kill for your reach and trusted relationships. I know: I used to run one. It’s not the only opportunity though.

But a lot of the products that support the new ways of working are physical: white boards and giant post-its. Things you already stock. The opportunity is to give customers more reasons to buy them. Don’t try to sell more post-it notes, teach your customers how to use more.

Automation is coming and it is going to cost jobs and cannibalise some of your legacy revenues. But someone is going to have to sell the tools of automation to businesses.

Accelerando

I call myself an applied futurist because without the application, I would largely be a science fiction author. That’s not to knock the genre: sci-fi has been the source of some of the most coherent and compelling visions of tomorrow.

In his 2005 book, Accelerando, Charles Stross describes a vision of a computing device, worn as glasses, that is so completely tied into our senses as to be transparent. We forget where it ends and we begin, until it is taken away.

The technology that Stross describes is very much like Google Glass, ten years before this real technology will hit European high streets. I believe we will become as reliant on technologies like this as we already have on our phones and satnavs for memory and navigation.

There’s a lot of scepticism about this view. Google Glass certainly faces a design challenge. While they may look cool if you’re a model, the reality is somewhat more dorky.

This will change though. Already prototypes like this from design company Kopin are significantly more acceptable.

But the reason I believe this technology will take off is about utility not style. Imagine having a smart computer with almost direct access to your senses that can present you with the answer to questions you haven’t even formed yet. That can allow you to communicate instantly with anyone in your company. Imagine how much more productive that would make you?

Bad News

Right now you’re thinking this is bad news. Another screen. More technology. Fewer office products.

I don’t believe so. The key feature of feature of Google Glass is that we look through it, not at it. Technologies like this are becoming transparent, refocusing our attention away from the screen and on to the physical environment around us.

Glass isn’t alone. Check out this example from Thalmic Labs.

This shift to the physical might seem incongruous. Out of step with the general direction of technology. But I don’t believe it is. As technology has advanced it has increasingly come out of the darkened back rooms and into our world, enhancing our interactions with our environment and with each other.

Just look at Foursquare. Meetups. Checking in on Facebook. Just look at Tinder.

Focus on the Physical Environment

What does this mean for you? After years of investment in screens and keyboards, I believe the coming generation of technology, combined with the other trends I will talk about, will bring our focus back to the physical environment of our office space.

There’s a wonderful book on Generation Z by the trend forecaster James Wallman. He talks about how the generation now entering the workforce are more interested in acquiring experiences than material goods. I see it in my own younger friends and relations, who own a MacBook, a fixed wheeled bicycle, a beard and not much else, yet fill my Facebook feed with pictures of their holidays.

I believe this desire for greater experiences extends to the office. There will be a renewed emphasis on the space an employer provides, the objects it contains, how clean it is and what coffee they serve.

This is an opportunity.

White Collar Robots

That incredible productivity I talked about earlier with regards to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and others, isn’t just restricted to Silicon Valley wonders. The automation that we have all been so familiar with in factories for decades is coming to call centres, retail, and even professional services.

With a product like Freeagent I barely need an accountant. If I didn’t hate admin so much, I wouldn’t have one at all.

In 2013 in the UK, half of all medium and large law firms merged or were acquired. What happens after this process?

The partners are fine. And actually the bottom tier of admin staff are fairly safe too: the firms largely like to keep local offices open.

But the acquiring business generally has a very effective middle: a cubicle farm of mid-tier workers, operating in a highly efficient, highly automated fashion. They don’t need or want another load of relatively expensive white-collar administrators: juniors and trainees. These are the people who get culled.

The lesson here is that if your job can be automated, it will be.

The Three Cs

The result of this automation, beyond the obvious reduction in the workforce, is that the nature of human work in the office is changing.

Office work is becoming increasingly focused on the tasks that remain uniquely human. These are what I suggested in a research project with the Institute of Chartered Accountants we should call the ‘Three C’s: Curation, Creation, Communication.

  • Curation is the ability to discover and qualify information.
  • Creation is the ability to synthesise something new from what you have discovered.
  • Communication is the ability to sell this new idea to your colleagues and customers.

These uniquely human skills can be augmented by technology in exactly the same way that our administrative skills are. But in this case, the technology is often very analogue.

Think about that measure of bandwidth again: bits per second. How fast can an idea be captured or communicated?

If you’re communicating exclusively to or through a screen then your bandwidth is sorely limited to just those few, flat pixels. Think about how much richer your communication is with the physical world. Every stroke of the pen, every scribbled word, every fold and crease.

Think about your interactions face to face: temperatures, smells, gestures, winks, pheromones and breaking bread. All your senses are engaged.

People wonder why it has taken so long for paper to disappear from the workplace but I think the reason is simple. It’s about bandwidth.

How often have you reached for a scrap of paper to scribble down an idea? Demonstrated a football formation with beer glasses and salt shakers? Dragged everyone around a whiteboard for an ‘idea shower’ or whatever the politically correct term now is?

Digital systems may be the best way to capture, store and share information around an organisation. But physical interactions remain more powerful ways to structure thoughts and quickly share an idea between two people.

A great example of this is in my last start-up, CANDDi. We had all of the digital tools we could want at our disposal, but do you know how we prototyped? With stacks of A4 and biros.

Cognitive Prosthetics

Today you can offer people more than pens and paper. There are so many cognitive prosthetics available to help people structure, capture and share ideas. To produce and prototype. Lego bricks, modelling clay to 3D printers.

These cognitive prosthetics are what human beings will increasingly need as they become ever more focused on the three Cs, the tasks of curation, creation, and communication.

Flexible Work

The other big trend in work in recent years has been flexibility. About where people work and when people work and how closely they are tied to their employer.

For some people flexibility is a bad thing and not a matter of choice: witness the growth of zero hours contracts.

But for others it is often a blessing.

Organisations like eLance are creating a global market for skills, enabling those in demand to drop in and out of work as their personal cashflow demands and driving up day rates for those with the right talents. The shortage of particular skills in this global market is driving up rates. In cities with a strong digital sector like Berlin and Barcelona, it is nearly impossible to convince a genuinely talented technologist to take a full time job because the freelance rates are so high. Geeks are getting paid the same as lower league footballers.

A culture of flexible work is building. Senior staff are being released onto more flexible contracts, allowing them to spend more time at home or taking on additional, perhaps charitable work. The old 9–5 is long dead, but in its place you find people who are more committed, more motivated, happier and healthier.

What is curious is where these people choose to work.

As we began to exit the downturn in Europe, construction on new office space ramped up rapidly again. But companies like Allied London focused on very different forms of office space: shared spaces for start-ups and freelancers are springing up everywhere.

Have you ever wondered how big cities could support so many boutique coffee shops? It’s because they are full of start-ups, freelancers and flexible workers.

Why?

A cynic might put it down to property prices and single households. People just don’t have any appropriate space to work in at home.

But a recent research report has proven what some of us knew intuitively to be true: proximity boosts productivity.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review recently showed that teams working in physical proximity complete projects 32% faster. They communicate 20% more, not just talking but via digital forms too. Working in physically grouped teams produced more ideas, more leaders.

Marissa Meyer’s policy of bringing everyone back to the office at Yahoo was not without grounds. Offices work.

This is why smart people choose to co-locate when they are starting new ventures, and it’s why organisations like TechHub, SpacePortX and HelloWork are building shared spaces for people to use.

Support Shared Space

The opportunity and the challenge for you here is to find a business model that allows you to reach the people in these shared spaces. You already sell to the serviced office providers, but what about the start-up spaces, the accelerators and incubators. What about the coffee shops? How about models that reach the inhabitants of these spaces more directly? I’m only half joking when I put up a vending machine.

Imagine the ability to buy pens and paper, but also lego bricks, modelling clay, white board pens, 3D printing supplies, coffee shots and oxygen cannisters, instantly and on the spot.

Interaction

While doing the research for this talk, I spoke to the supplier of a British supermarket chain. They used to supply them with 14 different grades and sizes of paper, before they finally rationalised down to the cheapest A4 they could negotiate. Every year, they use less.

I can’t suggest that any of the items I have suggested above will replace paper in this market. But they are all growth sectors that intersect with the apparent trajectory of office space and the changing nature of work in Europe.

The future of the office is much like its past: a place where human interaction drives financial growth. The challenge for this industry is understanding how best to support the changing nature of those interactions.

This post forms part of my Future Human series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future Human page.

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Tom Cheesewright