2050 WorkSpace Odyssey

July 16, 2001
Predicting the fate of the office of the future

(fyôô'cher) n. 1. the time that is to come 2. what is going to be 3. the chance to succeed.
Webster may have had no trouble defining the future, but predictions about the workplace of 2010 and beyond are not quite as easy to determine. Will it be space age like the Jetsons cartoon, or sci-fi like Star Trek? Speculation is as vast as the possibilities, and nothing is more certain than change.

Ten years ago, when alternative office strategies began getting attention, forecasters wondered if the office as we knew it would even exist in 2000. Despite the rising numbers of hotelers and telecommuters, building owners and developers reported plans to spend approximately $26 billion in new construction in office facilities during 2001, up more than $1 billion from the previous year in the 2001 Forecast, compiled and published by Stamats Buildings Media, Cedar Rapids, IA. Although the market is slowing, plans for office facilities construction are still on the rise.

Fueled by the unending need for socialization, interaction, and collaboration, the office is sure to be a mainstay of the 21st century. "Workers will always have the need to come together to capture the collective synergy of a team in developing solutions to business challenges," explains Gary E. Wheeler, managing principal, Perkins and Will, Chicago, in "Work Patterns Emerging in the 21st Century," his contribution to Future Work 2020, an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) white paper.
Beyond its mere existence, predictions for the office are uncertain - but the drivers for change are clear and provide a firm foundation from which to judge its fate in the decades to come.

Changing World, Changing Work
Medical advances in the last 50 years have made longer life spans a reality. This will undoubtedly affect the workplace. "There are going to be extended work years. Professionals are going to opt to remain in the workforce beyond the magic age of 65," says James D. Carter, studio principal, The Hillier Group, Philadelphia.

According to a 1999 study by AARP, "Fully eight in 10 Baby Boomers say they plan to work at least part time during their retirement; just 16 percent say they will not work at all." It will be to the benefit of businesses to provide environments suitable for post-retirement-aged employees, whose expertise and wisdom will ensure future success.

Real Property in the New Millennium, an October 2000 report by the U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Governmentwide Policy, Office of Real Property, confirms this by stating, "Organizations must prepare themselves to offer older workers the same amenities that appeal to younger workers … plus certain amenities that are specifically targeted to the aging population, such as on-site medical clinics, elderly care, and retreat or meditation rooms."

Techno Environments
From wireless to wearables, technology in the future is destined to shape the office of tomorrow. Much like the way the Internet revolutionized business in the 1990s (from 9:00 to 5:00, to 24/7/365), the marvels of the millennium are sure to impact the office profoundly. A few predictions follow:

  • Robotics. "Robots will take over repetitive tasks [and] give knowledge workers more time and energy for creative efforts," Carter predicts.
  • Biometrics. The security industry has already grabbed hold of the potential for hand scanning as a means for access control. This is only the tip of the iceberg. From password, to cardreader, to retinal scan: The future of point-of-entry monitoring is in for a revolution.
  • Wireless. "We will eventually reach an entirely wireless world," foretells Carter. As battery power increases and wireless solutions become cost effective and readily available, employees will be freed from their desks; technology will be portable; and the Internet will always be on.
  • Wearable technology. From the pocket calculator to the microchip, the increasing miniaturization of technology will spawn wearable computers and phones - some of which are already available. Surf the web for more information (www.charmed.com), (www.ideo.com), and (www.xybernaut.com).

Quality of Life
With so many of our "tools" becoming portable, the fine line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. With the projected capabilities of technology in the future, the question lingers, "How will individuals separate work and play?" More and more, employees are looking for companies and facilities that will enable them to find a better balance. Satellite centers are one solution and will enable employees to work in a corporate environment, while maintaining easy access to children, aging parents, and area amenities and services. Employees "punching the card" at satellite offices will also have the peace of mind that they are lessening their impact on the environment, through reduced commutes.

Employees still bustling to the company facility Monday through Friday may find some unexpected surprises in the future. Despite current trends toward standardization, futurists predict that personalization of workspaces will increase. The office will become a place that better meets the needs (and reflects the preferences) of employees. With greater comfort guiding office design, importance will be placed on exposure to natural sunlight (daylighting) and fresh air, along with personal control over HVAC in workspaces. "Ergonomics are going to be a key influencing factor, not only in office design but also in management and operation of offices," adds Robert W. Bentley, architect and planner, Pensacola, FL.

Prediction Consensus
Throw away the psychic hotline number; get rid of the Tarot cards and glass ball. Listen to the buzz. People are talking, and many are speaking in stereo. From predictions to certain destiny, some ideas are being hailed as inevitable.
With hybrid cars on the market and recycling bins around every corner, sustainable products and energy-saving technologies are becoming serious considerations for eco-conscious facilities professionals. Awareness about the products and processes used to construct office environments will be under greater scrutiny in the years to come. "We will be using materials that are better for the earth, better for the air, and better for the people working with them," explains Michael E. Willis, Michael Willis Architects, San Francisco.

E-mail has transcended geography - making international communication as easy as dialing up. The pros and cons of this are the capability to work anytime and anywhere. "There is no longer the traditional 9:00-to-5:00 workday. We can reach out to parts of the world through globalization and the Internet in different time zones," explains Carter. Facilities in the future must be ready to accommodate the new "workstyle" of global companies and international businesses and the technology required to operate accordingly.

As for the "raw" interiors and dotcom-inspired design of today and whether it will be a fatality in the coming decades, Willis responds, "The workplace of the future will not be a playroom. It will not have foozball. It will not be for boys only. It will not support arrested development. It will not be an unadorned concrete box."

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine

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