The small business office in 2050

Here, Neil Atkinson explores the prospect of working practices changing beyond recognition over the next few decades.

As we sit in our modern air-conditioned offices, some of which are open plan, some of which are made up of small teams of two or three or individuals, minds may wander to what the office in 2050 might look like. Will we need a centralised office location at all or will we all work virtually plugging into the office remotely, or perhaps we will continue to interact both in person and virtually? By 2050, will the idea of uniting as one under a common roof to work toward common goals still rein strong?

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Since the right to work more flexibly has been extended to all, many are wondering whether it will lead to additional freedoms. Will the ability at least to ask to work flexibly mean that workers will want to work remotely a day a week, work a three or four day week, or finish earlier or start later? An argument in support of flexible working is that it can more easily be supported by the use of 21st century forms of communication including cloud computing, social media and video conferencing.

Increased flexibility and remote working, principally from the comfort of the home, supported by improved means of communication, could presage a new age of wireless connectivity between people and not just machines. The technology to have face-to-face meetings over the internet, or even use a whiteboard, albeit a virtual one, has been around for years, and has become more familiar to us. Skype and Facetime are widely used, as are tools that allow employees to access shared documents and drives over the internet.

A nation of office workers

And yet, despite the many advances in remote working technology, latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 87 per cent of us still work primarily at the office. Meanwhile, research by Stanford University has found that remote workers are 13 per cent more productive, take fewer sick days and enjoy a quieter working environment than their commuting colleagues. No wonder a survey of business owners by Virgin Media Business recently predicted that 60 per cent of office-based employees will regularly work from home by 2022. A separate survey by Office Angels found a third of employees think commuting will be unheard of by 2036.

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There are still two distinct camps: the first of which sees the office of the future as more of a virtual entity while the second group calls for a reversal of remote working and a centrifugal pull back to the core office or ‘bodies on seats.’

When Yahoo USA CEO Marissa Mayer distributed her controversial decree insisting all staff be based in their offices rather than work remotely, she not only shocked the business community with the draconian measure, she also dismayed workers used to a high degree of flexibility in their working week.

In the book Remote: Office Not Required, David Heinemeier Hansson argues that creating virtual workspaces allows workers to provide their vital contribution without physically being together. And this is just one opinion from a tidal wave of people expressing the benefits of remote working.

There is no doubt that collaboration can lead to innovation however it does not necessarily need to be face-to-face. Mayer’s ban was widely criticised inside and beyond Yahoo’s walls. Even Richard Branson weighed into the argument by saying ‘Give people the freedom of where to work… This seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever’.

A call to be flexible

In February 2013, Microsoft Australia’s managing director Pip Marlow ordered her 830 staff not to come into the office. The ‘Summer Day Out’ was designed to promote flexible working and showcase Office 365 cloud technology as an enabler. It was deemed such a success that all Microsoft offices followed suit on 14 November and Microsoft’s entire 90,000 staff worked remotely for the day. For Pip Marlow it is becoming imperative to empower people to work remotely in a mobile environment by making sure people have both the tools and the culture to do so. This includes the right telephone, the right cloud technology to enable them, and then focusing on the outcomes not the process of monitoring.

These days, technology makes it possible to fire up a virtual desktop on any enabled laptop or tablet, and mobile computing devices, cloud-based applications, video conferencing, instant messaging and even social media are all options to keep the workforce connected at dispersed locations. Moreover, the option to work remotely or flexibly cuts out a large degree of wasted time commuting and provides other advantages like reducing absenteeism, increasing staff retention and improving the ability to conduct business across multiple time zones.

Mayer’s memo noted that ‘speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’ is rebuffed by Vanson Bourne’s research for Citrix that 83 per cent of over 1,000 CIOs across 11 countries believe that flexible working increases productivity.

Whilst cost savings may be achieved by reducing the office footprint, there are a number of IT factors that need to be carefully considered to support a remote or flexible workforce.

Certainly, one of the challenges for businesses with a remote or flexible labour force is maintaining or growing a healthy corporate culture, especially with the heavy reliance on electronic communication. In a technologically enabled world of the future there looks likely to be even more work choices. Decision makers may find a balance by investing in systems that enable flexibility in the workforce without overlooking the importance of face time in the real world.

Neil Atkinson is founder of HR outsourcing and employment law specialist Deminos

Further reading on flexible working

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