Collection No 6

Future of Work

The Commoditization of the Workplace

Key characteristics of the successful future office.

The traditional corporate office is at war with how we live, work, occupy, sleep, and socialize. The increasing adoption of mobile digital workplace tools separates the activity of work from place. Work can now happen anywhere, and the future office must transform in order to survive.

On the most basic level, mobile communication and collaboration tools enable us to produce, create, collaborate, and communicate in ways that no longer tie us to a common space. This subverts the entire notion and need for the traditional office. At the same time, some argue that these tools are not nearly as good as real-time, face-to-face interactions in a physical office space.

Today the spontaneous connections that we make in close proximity to other people are hard to replicate in a digital environment. But future advances in technology, such as telepresence and augmented reality, could create a visceral feeling of proximity, effectively making face-to-face interactions obsolete. In such a future, what would the complete separation of work from physical space mean for the office? The future of the office will depend on the type and pace of work that the business requires, on the evolving wants and needs of employees, and on the value we assign to physical proximity and place at work.

For some types of work, perhaps the traditional office is no longer relevant. Maintaining and operating corporate office space is expensive, and the return on that investment might not be attractive if the type of work does not benefit from co-located teams. This is especially true if the employees engaging in the work also do not desire a shared work environment. The first step to a viable office strategy in the future is to recognize that you might not need an office at all.

But what if your business depends on the fruitful collaboration of co-located teams? How can you make a shared physical workspace attractive even as digital tools offer new capabilities and transform employee expectations?

History shows that the corporate office remained relevant even as it evolved continually in response to advances in communications and transportation. The introduction of the telegraph and telephone enabled the separation of manufacturing from administration, creating centralized offices for aggregating and distributing information. Then, the automobile and highway system led to suburban expansion, opening up new land for economic activity and supporting office parks and corporate campuses. Over the course of the next several decades, suburban offices became so dominant that they made up three-quarters of all office space in the United States.

In the late 1980s, the sociologist Robert Fishman predicted that the Internet would make centralized offices and dense urban cores obsolete, in favor of huge “techno-burbs” heavily dependent on advanced telecommunications tools. In fact, the opposite occurred: as the Internet spread, people converged toward dense urban centers more than ever before. One reason for this trend could be that people simply enjoy being around one another. They go to the office not only for productivity, but also because they find value in the social aspects of the workplace.

If a company believes there are strategic benefits to co-location for its employees, it should treat its office strategy just like its business strategy: there are competitive players (in this case, any physical place) vying for customers (your employees and their attention). To remain relevant, the future office must offer spaces and experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. The office must offer a differentiated product that attracts employees for the opportunity to be productive, but also for the opportunity to be human. It must offer spaces that are convenient in location, desirable for people, and accretive to business outcomes. Here are a few ways this will take shape:

Location will increasingly become more strategic for businesses, as the choice of city—and location within city—will impact the company’s ability to attract both customers and talent. The ideal office will be located near end-user customers, suppliers, or partners that require and benefit from tightly knit integration (like manufacturing and R&D). Proximity to diversified transportation networks—including mass transit, car services, ride-sharing applications, and autonomous driving infrastructure—will change how employees view the commute.

Lifestyle perks offered at the office will become increasingly important. On a practical level, high-quality amenities are tools that encourage employees to be physically present at the office. They also serve an important function by driving social interaction and building employee engagement and loyalty. Employees will need incentives that draw them into the office on their own terms. In the same vein, office culture and community will become more important. Any type of psychological barrier that might arise from a hostile or poor professional culture will damage productivity.

Finally, the physical environment will need to respond to the existential competitive challenge represented by digital workplace tools. Offices of the future must facilitate and cultivate productivity by providing physical environments that enhance the power of digital workplace tools. Spaces must respond on demand in ways that make us more productive or more creative, through features that increase the probability of productive collisions. Conference rooms outfitted with sensors and managed through software must offer substantial value over “dumb” conference rooms. Chairs and desks might begin to talk to us, respond to our moods, or realize when we are frustrated or tired. Spaces might learn and adapt to our own behaviors by dimming the lights, turning on music, or reducing the temperature. Augmenting physical spaces to augment our human capacities is an untapped opportunity.

The office as we know it is not guaranteed to survive in the future, but we do know that past predictions signaling the demise of the office in favor of advanced technologies have not come to pass. There is something special about the office, and tomorrow’s technologies should serve to improve the spaces where employees congregate, rather than to replace those spaces outright. The future office must weave our digital identity into the physical workplace in ways that make us super-productive, super-collaborative, super-creative, and perhaps even super-human.

Dan Chen

Dan Chen is a strategist at frog. His passions lie at the intersection of technology, architecture and cities. He received his MBA from Stanford GSB and his undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard University.

Write a Comment

Dear Dan, fascinating article. You are, it seems, dealing with the evolution of the traditional model of business, and I would like to suggest that business itself will change and the office will change first in order to meet the new business model. The future will see increasing numbers of independent consultants, freelancers, startups, who do not need the large office space, but may value a community of similar thinkers, in the way that a group of sculptors may share a studio space. I would love to pick your brain on the concept. Thanks, Jonathan
Jonathan Wright, 2015-02-11 19:01:00

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