The office of today is already strikingly different to that of 30 years ago: PCs instead of typewriters, cups of herbal tea replacing cigarettes and ashtrays, and email in place of the printed department memo. And yet, despite these surface changes, the underlying business of the office – the way employees interact and spend their working day – hasn’t changed so much.

But with the arrival of a new generation of workers who have grown up with fast broadband, social networks and mobile phones, the office could be about to go through a dramatic upheaval that means in a few years’ time you might not even recognise your own cubicle anymore.

Social networking replaces email
The majority of organisations rely on email for their correspondence and collaboration, and social networking is generally viewed as something for leisure, not work. But the potential for this kind of technology to translate into the workplace is huge: the generation of workers now entering the job market, the so-called “millennial generation”, naturally communicate and collaborate via social networks.

Screen shot of Salesforce.com's Chatter application

Facebook-style business networks like Salesforce.com’s Chatter are likely to be used much more widely in the future
(Screenshot: Salesforce.com)

Business technology vendors have been reacting to this change: Microsoft has incorporated Facebook and LinkedIn into the latest version of its Outlook email software, while other business-focused networking services are emerging, such as cloud computing company Salesforce.com’s Chatter application. The system, launched last year, allows users to create profiles and real-time news feeds to help them to work more effectively with their colleagues.

According to Nicola Millard, a futurologist with BT, the use of Facebook-style business networks will “completely and inevitably” be a part of technology used in the future office.

And while offices are currently places where people socialise and network, Millard said social networking technology will increasingly allow people to do this virtually – and more effectively.

No longer will workers rely on email to get hold of information, for example – in the future they’ll be able to log on to their business network and find (and then take part in) relevant discussions that people in the organisation are having.

Millard warns this use of networking technology will require…

…a change in the way businesses are structured, making them less hierarchical and more able to build networks of expertise across functions without rebuilding traditional silos.

As a result, businesses will need to work out where the expertise is and create the networks to tap into it. If there is a group of people across the business that use a particular system or have the similar responsibilities in their respective divisions, they can work together and share information using a network.

Social networking as the database of the future
But social networking won’t just be about communication and collaboration – it will also be a way of generating and storing data.

Gartner analyst Steve Prentice believes social networks will increasingly be used to capture unstructured interactions and related data. Currently, this data – such as information about how a particular business process is carried out – is stored in emails or Word documents and thus is hard to find and easy to lose.

“[By] bringing the capabilities of social media platforms to deal with unstructured data and collaboration into an internalised environment, the issues of control, linking to the existing knowledge management systems and security and IP leakage and all those sort of things, tend to go away,” Prentice said.

Internal networking technologies – such as Jive Social Business Software – are therefore likely to grow in the future as they serve the need to internalise networking capabilities. This approach will make it easier to control the information that flows around the network and minimise the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands or, more likely, be lost.

If businesses are highly networked in this way, they could be able to exploit the knowledge of employees more effectively than if they relied on email alone.

Prentice added that currently, most enterprise applications are focused on the mechanisation and automation of structured data around well-defined processes but such an approach is only useful in certain situations.

Prentice described this unstructured data as “the glue that holds the structured processes” and predicts supporting that with technology “is something that we will see a growing focus on in software inside enterprises”.

He added that unstructured data in the context of social networks is actually a misnomer as it’s merely structured in a different way as the information is inherently related to due to the way social networks link it together.

“This is like the next generation of databases… where the relationships are inherent in the people,” he said.

Not waving but working
Waving your hands around wildly to move data around may have been fine in sci-fi movie Minority Report, where the user manipulates information on giant glass displays before swiping it off the screen, but in reality opinion is split between the continuing use of the humble keyboard and the adoption of more radical technology.

BT’s Millard has been looking at the potential of ambient interfaces – touch and gestural – and believes they could represent a useful ways of collaborating in the workplace.

Microsoft’s Kinect gestural system, in particular, has generated interest. “That kind of technology is really interesting because it’s gesture based, it’s very intuitive, it’s got face and voice recognition, so it knows who’s in a meeting if you used it in a work situation,” Millard said.

But Gartner’s Prentice is more cautious about gestural technology saying it won’t become the main interface…

…in the office environment due to the difficulties of translating physical movements to common office tasks.

“Whilst moving a football around on a screen is obvious, playing tennis on a Nintendo Wii is obvious, navigating through an accounting system or word processing or an Excel spreadsheet… it’s difficult to see what logical movements would be translated into that,” he said.

There is also the view that this kind of technology isn’t conducive to creating a productive working environment: staff waving their arms around in the office would create a chaotic atmosphere that would distract other people from their work. It’s for the same reason that Prentice believes voice recognition technology will continue to be a niche technology.

The need for private work environments – where collaboration isn’t the core requirement – will remain and potentially become more important.

BT’s Millard raised the possibility of creating “privacy bubbles” which would allow people to work on their own without being distracted by groups of people using these new interfaces.

Offices may become split into different areas with collaborative spaces in which gestural and touch technology could be exploited and areas that use more conventional technology is used to complete other kinds of tasks.

Gesture-based technology is more suited to manipulating and presenting data but there is also the area of data input, which will require other approaches.

Family using Microsoft Kinect device

If gestural systems like Microsoft’s Kinect are adopted in the workplace, scenes like this could become a common sight in the office
(Photo credit: Microsoft)

Prentice believes the potential of touchscreen interfaces and virtual keyboards to input data and create documents is limited. “I think we’re going to see a mouse and keyboard and conventional stuff – and forget virtual keyboards because you need tactile feedback.”

According to Prentice, the need for physical feedback is essential for inputting data to be ergonomic and comfortable for workers. Health and safety regulations would also be strongly against the mass use of touchscreen technology for inputting information, he added.

For sending emails and looking at and manipulating data, touchscreen technology could be put to use but is less suitable for entering data in the first place.

“I don’t see for anything other than lightweight keyboarding, no one is really going to use a virtual keypad on a media tablet however good the screen is, because they’re not easy to type on. It’s one thing to put a few instant messages or Twitters or a few edits to documents but are you going to write that 20-page report on it? I don’t think so.”

Your office is now your front room
Although working from home is now more common than it was in the past, it still isn’t the norm for most people. In the future, it’s likely to become much more commonplace as technology develops and the need for organisations to reduce their carbon footprints through reduced travel becomes more acute.

“The office of the future isn’t the one with the grey filing cabinets in the corner and potted palm, it’s your home office,” Ovum analyst Richard Edwards told silicon.com.

Although the trend of remote working is unlikely to see everyone…

…working at home full time, it will be increasingly accepted that people don’t need a space in a traditional corporate office all of the time.

According to Edwards, one of the main reasons why working away from the office will become easier is that technology will soon be “re-establishing [a] gaze”, meaning people will be able to have the eye-to-eye contact that is so important when communicating effectively.

The lack of visual contact is why telephone conversations are sometimes more difficult to follow than face-to-face conversations as people can’t always react to body language and expressions.

Advances in videoconferencing will be one of the key elements in this trend towards remote working: Edwards envisages webcams appearing on home television sets so that people will be able to use the high definition screens they have at home to work with people in the office or other remote locations. This kind of technology could break down the barriers that have meant remote working has, until now, only been an occasional luxury for most people.

With the gradual upgrading of broadband networks, the days of clunky video and audio delays could come to an end meaning the technical shortcomings of videoconferencing that have put people off using it could become a thing of the past.

Looking further ahead, BT is testing videoconferencing technology able to detect who is speaking at any given moment. This means the system can switch camera to focus on the person talking, much like the way people would turn to a colleague when they speak in a physical meeting.

High quality video conferencing may soon be possible at home as well as in the office

High quality videoconferencing may soon be possible at home as well as in the office
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Videoconferencing resolves the issue of effective communication when working remotely but other technology to enable the home office will also be important – for example the ability to store data on routers and the greater prevalence of home networks.

Organisations may also look more at distributed filing systems, including cloud technology but also local storage, as people may want to avoid slow upload speeds causing problems when editing documents.

As these technologies advance, the need for office space may well diminish as more and more people choose to spend more of their working day at home or in other remote locations. Offices could become places simply for meetings or weekly catch-ups when people can meet in person.

BT’s Millard said the concept of having secure control over a space dedicated to the business will continue to be useful as it allows people to meet up and maintain the social element of office work: “The office of the future is going to be one of those places where you touch down, you network, you have access to big sophisticated videoconferencing suites.”

Virtual worlds make a comeback
Virtual worlds have been around for some time but are likely to become more useful to the business world in the future as the millennial generation starts to become a stronger force in the workplace and broadband networks are upgraded.

Ovum’s Edwards said the possibility of a virtual office, where people don’t need to come into a physical workspace, could be an approach that some organisations will adopt.

These virtual offices would be used as a substitute for the chance meetings or overheard conversations you would have in a physical office. For this approach to work…

…it would require better integration of audio functionality into virtual worlds so that when users are moving around the virtual environment they can latch onto useful conversations.

This would mean users’ avatars could walk past others’ avatars and hear conversations to which they can choose to contribute, so some of the benefits of the physical office would be recreated virtually.

The use of this kind of virtual world technology could also integrate presence and location-based information to allow people to work out when people might be amenable to discussing issues – rather than bombarding people with information when they are working on other things.

It could also be beneficial for companies operating across different time zones as they could have conversations when people are available even if they’re in geographically different locations. Although email can be used to do this, there is always a lag on people responding if they’re in different time zones.

The use of a virtual office would mean people could catch colleagues before they leave the office even if it’s the beginning of the day where they are.

“I do think [virtual worlds] have a place and I think the evidence from the World of Warcraft type environment points towards that they can be used very effectively as collaborative environments,” BT’s Millard said.

The growth of cloud and user customisation
Although cloud computing is already having an impact on how organisations access and use software, this is likely to become even more prevalent in the future.

Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal argues that the desktop will soon be more of a portal for users to access the services they want rather than providing a way to be given a fixed range of applications.

“It’s about moving from a model whereby IT defines what the user is going to have on their machine – and in quite a lot of instances locking the machine down to a specification which is to the convenience of the IT people – much more than to the convenience of the user. Moving from IT ‘push’ to user ‘pull’ whereby users have access to on-demand applications and they can mix the applications together to find the right ones that are relevant to their work.”

This self-service concept would be something that would work with both public and private cloud models and see users having access to a shared pool of resources or applications from which they could choose.

There would clearly need to be changes to the way IT is managed to make sure CIOs and IT managers are able to keep track of how different resources are being used: for example policies will be needed to work out which parts of the business should have priority with shared pools of resources when demand is high.

However, Lachal doesn’t expect the self-service approach to extend to users buying the hardware they use at work.

Gartner’s Prentice said applications are just as likely to be delivered from the cloud as from local devices. As computer screens will increasingly provide a portal to both online and local applications, users will need to be more careful with data as they move between applications.

Screenshot of Citrix Dazzle

The ability for users to pick and choose the applications they want with systems such as Dazzle from Citrix could become more commmonplace in the future
(Screenshot: Citrix)

“A screen is a window to a multiplicity of applications and we expect to be able to move seamlessly between them without acknowledging any risks that may actually arise from that concurrency of applications and information on that same screen. As soon as you mix the internal with the external then there are risks,” he said.

The risk is that users could accidentally place the wrong piece of data into the public domain as they move between applications. Tweeting confidential information could become the equivalent of losing a laptop in the office of the future.

Another challenge according to Lachal will be to find the right balance of private and public cloud technologies. He said: “The key thing is to mix bits and pieces and the innovation will come out of this recipe making. It’s about having one foot in each camp and trying to find the best mix of the two.”

This mixture will also require managers to have access to information about usage and cost per user to make sure people are making effective use of the technology at their disposal and that the organisation is getting value for money and the IT department is able to make better decisions about the allocation of resources in terms of productivity and cost.