Office Tech

Offices of the Future Won't be Modeled on Factories of the Past

Contemporary offices are basically the white-collar version of an assembly line. That will change as the information economy matures.
Offices of the Future Won't be Modeled on Factories of the Past
Image credit: BraunS | Getty Images

Imagine someone typing at a multidirectional treadmill desk, wearing VR goggles, drinking triple-ozonized spa water, hosting a virtual meeting, all from a one-bedroom apartment.

Got that image? Well good, you’re probably not picturing the office of the future. For the next 10 years, people are still going to think, jabber and poke keyboards in shared physical spaces. But unlike the spaces we’re used to, the office of the future will have an untraditional purpose: to help you accomplish audacious, outer-space things.

Offices are a legacy of the industrial world. Back in the day, you couldn’t work the assembly line from your Apple laptop at Starbucks. The factory was designed for the product, not the workers. If they could make a ton of stuff without getting maimed, the space was good enough. If a few higher-paid overseers monitored the whole shebang, workers would make even more stuff.

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Modern offices inherited the purpose of factories: production, supervision, and safety. They industrialized routine computer tasks. The space made it easy for supervisors to squash risk taking and call pointless meetings that tickle their egos.

Today, if we hire people to think independently, exercise creativity, and take risks, most of these legacy office structures just don’t make sense. The office of the future has to foster rather than repress our “spark of madness.”

How? The answer is automation and "hacks."

The office of the future needs to automate not-so-world-changing decisions that drain willpower -- you know, that stuff you need to grind through challenging work. As New York Times columnist John Tierney put it, “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts..." Being impulsive or not deciding are the two main shortcuts.

How could you automate away decisions? Start with meeting rooms. At some offices, if you want space to brainstorm with coworkers, you better book that meeting room a month ahead. You better volley emails back and forth like ping pong balls until everyone agrees to a date. The spontaneous meeting booker will find herself sauntering from room to room, peeking in, hoping she can snag an empty one.

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What if, instead, you could check the availability of a meeting room with an app that relied on sensors and Bluetooth to detect occupants? What if you could then book it immediately on an app? One point for productivity, minus two points for frustration and wasting time.

Maybe that same app could tell you if there’s coffee made, or a package waiting for you. Maybe it could ping you when a visitor arrives. Maybe it could be your key to the office. Maybe that app could eliminate the inconsequential decisions that, in aggregate, waste your willpower.

In this future office, the receptionist won’t sit absentminded hoping for action because services like Managed Q have taken much of the mundane stuff off the plate. The receptionist becomes the future office manager, an experimenter who automates the office and hacks the potential of its people. The office manager emulates companies that have tapped the human psyche for its deepest brilliance.

O2E Brands, known for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, offers a great example of hacking. After CEO Brian Scudamore fired his team and started anew, he wanted to inspire bigger thinking. The solution was a wall. He tacked up decals that read, “Can you imagine?” Scudamore and his team put up scary, audacious goals on that wall, for all to see.

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It worked. Scudamore made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as he had written. His marketing manager Andrea Baxter got 1-800-GOT-JUNK? on 10 million Starbucks cups in North America, as she imagined. O2E hacked bold action. They defied the traditional white collar factory, where “do as you're told” was the border of imagination. Great office managers will follow such examples. 

Maybe one day the best office will be a virtual environment, and “commuting” will entail putting on a VR headset. But I hope not. When I walk into Envoy every work day, I’m glad to be here, in a place that brings out the best in us. Let’s make more offices where everyone can feel that way too.