Office of the future: A new world of work

Theorists and so-called technical evangelists everywhere are fond of cogitating over the possible features we might find in the office of the future. From ringtones to robots, everything could be about to change. Here the Windows team gazes into its crystal ball of office equipment and gets ready to throw away their old staplers and paper clips once and for all.
Office of the future: A new world of work
By Adrian Bridgwater
Sun 18 May 2008 04:00 AM

Theorists and so-called technical evangelists everywhere are fond of cogitating over the possible features we might find in the office of the future. From ringtones to robots, everything could be about to change.

Here the Windows team gazes into its crystal ball of office equipment and gets ready to throw away their old staplers and paper clips once and for all.

It's interesting and certainly thought provoking to try and produce some informed conjecture on the topic of future office environments.

Quite apart from it also being quite fun, it serves two purposes in that it allows us to think firstly about what we'd like to be possible - and then think about what is practically possible within the limits of the technology we have at hand and can see or envisage on future roadmaps.

IBM takes a similar approach to its own in house research and development (R&D) practice. First there's the ‘blue-sky-thinking way-out' team or, if you prefer, the ‘pure' research strand: these are the guys with the wacky haircuts who take a no boundaries approach to forward thinking.

Then, there's the ‘empirical' team who have a better handle on what is truly possible: fairly wacky haircuts too, but these guys have the ability to put the brakes on and bring a project back down to earth so that it can actually see fulfillment.

If we take IBM's model to the Middle Eastern small office of the year 2020, then our two teams would, perhaps, produce the following ideas...

The ‘blue-sky-thinking way-out' team report details the following breakthroughs: temperature controlled desk seats, retinal eye scans for user log in, robots for coffee and cleaning duties, electrically powered screens that rise and up and down from the floor to form new ‘cubicles' as and when and where they are needed - and maybe even really accurate voice recognition software to take meeting notes and minutes down automatically.

In response, the slightly more stoic ‘empirical' teams says that the temperature controlled seats are a cute idea but not that new, the retina thing is definitely on the horizon, the employees can get their own coffee thank you very much (some things come down to cost after all), the cubicles suggestion obviously came after way too much coffee - and finally, you know what, on the voice recognition software, we're trying really hard, but in a region like the Middle East with so many international accents it's still going to be a hard one to accomplish.

Wired to go unwired

Looking at developments with our feet slightly more firmly planted on the ground, it is fairly evident that we are moving to a completely wireless small office. The use of technology such as Bluetooth has ensured that our keyboards, mice and who knows what next have become ‘unwired'.

If you - and please excuse the overused expression - think outside the box, then anything could be possible.

So think about just think how far it could go. The next stage could see us using RFID (radio frequency identifier) tags to a greater degree.

Consider this example: if all the food in your fridge at home was tagged with RFID information, then this could be recorded onto personal data cards that you carry in your wallet.

Then, as you get to your office the ‘reader' unit at work records a note of what foods you would have eaten most recently. This then communicates with the local sandwich shop, restaurant or food provider that you normally lunch with.

The cooks at the food end of this chain then know what you like to eat and what you might have had too much of recently.

They can they email you with sandwich options or restaurant offers based upon your most likely preferences - taking into account dietary needs based on whether you might be a Muslim or a Hindu or other of course.

You can then concentrate on your work in the knowledge that your lunch decisions have mostly been made for you! Productivity soars if this works, so would say the theorists. 640K ought to be enough for anybody

Some would say that these ideas are just too far fetched, but perhaps these are the same people that twenty years ago would have said that mass proliferation of mobile phones could never happen, that the internet was just a pipe dream and that Bill Gates might have actually said "640K ought to be enough for anybody" - actually that last one is an apocryphal urban myth, but you get the point.

"It's easy to go wild with these kinds of predictions, but at the same time it's rather more productive to take a 'nearly there' approach and look at the bleeding edge of technology that may already exist, but has yet to benefit from widespread implementation and the subsequent price reduction that typically goes with it," said Emanuele Accolla, Vice President, Acer EMEA and Director for META region.

"I can see Arab users benefiting from mobile user profiles that they carry with them on a key card or some kind of wireless identification device.

They no longer need to own a single PC and always work from one location, they can hot desk in the office and simply log in to a personalised desktop (on any machine) and they can do this when they get home or are in another office - or in an aeroplane even!

In the future we'll be far more focused on maximising efficiency from our computing resources and this kind of development will help make it a reality," added Accolla.

A higher level view

For an analytical perspective, Windows User Middle East magazine spoke to Clive Longbottom, service director, business process analysis for Quocirca Ltd. "The office of the future will probably have far more to do with how the back ends connect up and what they will do together.

For example, computers are getting to the power level now where intelligent decisions based on voice recognition can be made that are pretty good," said Longbottom.

"Looking further, the ‘portable office' is a near reality as 32Gb (and larger) thumb-sized storage devices are now capable of carrying a user's entire work environment (operating system, software applications stack and documents/data) in one ‘hopefully' secure spot.

This then means that the individual desk is pretty meaningless, as highly adaptable workspaces (such as the re-workable offices cubes) and other hot desking concepts come through such as IP follow-me-telephony, multi-location working and so on," commented Longbottom.

IP follow-me- telephony is again one of those ‘concepts' for the future office that is in fact possible and practicable already. The concept is simple: an individual (or small company for that matter) has one centralised phone number.

During work hours number recognition software works to route business calls through to the number appropriately while at the same time sending personal calls to an answerphone service.

When work hours are over the service switches over. Selected family members who need to override the system are pre-programmed as ‘always on' so urgent personal messages can still get through.

The uptake from individual consumers and corporates now depends upon how the local Middle Eastern telecoms providers price these services and how quickly they bring them online.

Enviro-futures

"Increasingly businesses are thinking about the environment and the impact their IT system is having on the future. Technologically driven solutions will be a major enabler of environmental management solutions in the future.

Rising energy prices, growing concerns about energy security and stricter regulations on consumption are heightening demand for energy-efficient and low-carbon products and solutions.

We are responding with a comprehensive strategy to minimise the impact of climate change associated with our operations and supply chain, while innovating products and solutions for an energy- and carbon-constrained world," said Amr Hassan, general Manager for imaging and printing group, HP Middle East.

"Video conferencing has yet to live up to its potential benefit to the environment by reducing business travel, largely because it falls so far short of the quality of a face-to-face meeting, but this will change.

Imagine being able to meet face-to-face with colleagues on the other side of the world as if you were in the same room-with no perceived delay, full-size and so life-like, you forget they are 10,000 miles away," added Hassan. New virtual worlds

Talking in terms of how some of these predictions may come about, it's probably useful to look at some of the most rapidly growing areas of technology growth such as virtualisation.

For those new to the topic, virtualisation is based around the concept of server consolidation so that computing resources, from the operating system through to the applications, are effectively hidden from the users who benefit from them.

It can save money, increase efficiency and is, by all accounts, a good strategic move from a disaster recovery perspective.

"Virtualisation is already proving popular with businesses in the Middle East region, particularly for companies that have to be very efficient in how they use power," said Reza Malekzadeh, senior director of products and marketing EMEA at VMware.

Virtualisation allows organisations to treat their IT resources as one big pool, from applications through to servers and storage - and then allocate it as they see fit.

"Where this will develop in future is greater flexibility for Arab businesses: users can get access to their applications and data wherever it suits them.

If employees are mobile, then they can carry their PC around with them on a USB stick - any time you need the PC environment, just insert the stick into a workstation and everything comes up straight away.

For companies that want to buy in computing resources as and when they need it, it would be just the same as buying in electricity or telecoms services. One call and you can have as much IT resource as you need, for as long as you need it," Malekzadeh

So, as initially suggested, we can see that there are two sides to this topic. There's the ‘concept car' approach and there's the ‘what can we really achieve in the next five years' approach. Virtualisation for example is very much on the next five years side of the equation.

But it's still valuable to think conceptually - and we should perhaps do so with a close eye on the local market to see what special characteristics the Middle East market will demand.

What's special about the Middle East?

Across the 22 nations of the Arab league there are considerable differences in infrastructure, penetration of technology and IT skills.

Futuristically focused construction consultants in Kuwait trying to use their new 3D holographic building generator to explain how a new housing complex will look in Yemen may find that the customer in San'a' doesn't have the same technology installed.

There are more subtle differences across the region that may also affect the way these ultra sophisticated office tools have to be developed. From Alexandria to Ajman not everyone has the same tastes and needs.

Some differences will be down to personal preferences and some will come down to cultural factors - and if anything, the Middle East and the Gulf in particular is a hugely diverse melting pot of different cultures.

To illustrate this challenge, lets remember that red is the colour of luck in China, but is widely regarded as the colour of anger in the rest of the world. So when our futuristic executive reclines in his chair for a 60-second power nap the sensors in the back of the chair pick up his tension.

The sensors instantly send out a jet of cool air (flavoured with pine trees and mountain air from the heights of Lebanon of course) from the air conditioning system, the massage unit in the chair itself kicks in and the walls of the office change to a nice soft aquamarine blue to make him feel chilled out. Sounds great, doesn't it?

But wait! Our exec is Mr David Chan originally from Beijing and now based in Dubai.

He would have preferred red! No problem, actually, when he started in his first week at work, the Human Resources department coded all this information into his personal preferences tag card that he carries with him at all times. See? There's an answer for everything in the office of the future.

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