By Matt Villano
Wondering about the office of the future? It might take more imagination than you think. "Who says there'll be an office at all?" asks Tom Austin, vice president at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based technology research firm. "Already we work from Starbucks, in the car and at our kids' softball games."
Sure, experts like Austin have predicted the obsolescence of the workplace for years, but as technology empowers people to work from any place with an internet connection, it's starting to look like more small- and medium-size businesses could very well decide to go without on the physical office front.
Take, for instance, Floor64. The media and consulting company maintains a brick-and-mortar space in Sunnyvale, Calif., but also runs a bunch of Skype-powered chat rooms for remote workers--many of which are buzzing for most of the day.
"These [chat rooms], more than anything else, represent our 'office,'" says CEO Mike Masnick, "and they don't exist in physical space."
Several developments have facilitated the rise of a virtual workplace. Nearly 6 million Americans work from home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Cloud computing enables data backups and remote collaboration in real time. And group video chat--videoconferencing 2.0, if you will--has become dirt cheap (or, in the case of Google Hangouts, free).
Even traditional back-office departments are moving toward virtualization. Recently a number of third-party companies have popped up to provide services such as human resources, payroll and benefits. Some of these providers, including Algentis and Insperity, offer customizable online portals for each employee.
Of course many companies--big ones, especially--won't give up on physical offices entirely. But experts say that in order to succeed, these firms should completely rethink their layouts, creating work environments that provide employees with a range of options.
Gartner's Austin predicts that rather than the cube farms and conference rooms of yore, workspaces will come to evoke areas of the typical home--open floor plans with couches and soft rugs; cozy, kitchen-like spaces with waist-high countertops; and covered outdoor patios with chaise longues.
Or, says Kevin Kuske--chief brand advocate and general manager for Turnstone, an office-furniture company in Grand Rapids, Mich.--office planners will start to think more like city planners, clumping purpose-built spaces into distinct portions of a building. "Urban centers have entertainment zones, dining zones, even residential zones," Kuske notes. "For an office to work it needs to take this approach, too."