Author Mark Richards

The monitor on Jessica’s wrist pulsed. ‘Is it that time already?’ she thought to herself. 10:30 on Wednesday morning. She opened the hatch in her window and there it was. “Good morning, 316,” she said. “And how are you today?”

“I’m well, thank you, Jessica,” the Amazon drone replied. “Could you just open the hatch a little wider?” Jessica did as she was asked, and 316 released her weekly shopping order. The familiar brown box slid through the hatch and into her lounge. “And now your readings, Jessica, if you could?”

Jessica held up her wrist. 316 scanned the monitor, reading her blood pressure, cholesterol levels and a hundred other readings Jessica didn’t even pretend to understand. “I think we may need to change your medication,” 316 said. “9727 will be here with some new tablets on Friday. See you next week.”

Jessica closed the hatch and watched 316 fly off into the distance. She sighed. The drones were the only friends she had now. It hadn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, she worked in an office. She had friends. She’d had her eye on Dan in the sales department. But then technology changed everything…

It is worth beginning with a quote from the last article I wrote: Professor Stephen Furber of Manchester University said, 

“The rate at which technology is transforming the workplace means that we live in a world where many primary schoolchildren will work in technology-based roles that do not yet exist, so it is essential that [they] can apply digital skills with confidence.”

Millennials will dominate the workforce

That was a worrying prediction for children now at school – but what does it mean for people already in work? By the middle of the next decade millennials – those who became adults around the turn of the century – will make up 75% of the workforce. But with the world of work changing ever more rapidly, will they spend much of their working life alone and – like Jessica – find themselves facing an even lonelier old age?

One thing we know is that millennials like to work flexibly. They like the freedom to work from home and they like flexible hours. A recent story on the BBC reported that a majority of British workers would now like to work from 8 until 4, rather than the traditional 9 to 5. In fact, people appeared to favour anything but 9 to 5, with 10% of zealots ready to start work at 7 am and go home at three in the afternoon. Reasons quoted for favouring a change included a desire to avoid peak commuting hours and – not surprisingly among parents – the chance to save on childcare costs by being able to collect their children from school.

What will the office of the future look like?

Irrespective of the hours they work, people are likely to find the traditional office environment changing rapidly in the next few years. A recent survey found that two-thirds of companies are planning to implement hot-desking and shared workspaces by 2020. The trend has started in the Far East but will quickly spread to the West as multinationals and large companies realise the savings they can make – despite evidence that employees do not like the practice.

By 2025 many companies will be holding virtual reality meetings – meaning that physical meetings will become a thing of the past and there will be even less need to travel to an office.

Even if you do go into the office, by 2030 it is likely that you will be working with an AI office assistant – a robot that will book travel, arrange virtual meetings and complete other administrative tasks (and obviously, arrange for 316 and 9727 to deliver the coffee pods).

What other changes can we expect to see? The world’s first office built by a 3D printer is already operating in Dubai, having taken just 17 days to build. And offices will become intelligent buildings, storing and saving power and automatically adapting to changing weather outside and occupancy levels inside.

Is remote working a double-edged sword?

The office of the future: What will it look like?

There is clear evidence that remote workers are more productive – research from Stanford University has found that they get 13% more done than their office-bound colleagues and take fewer sick days. But virtually all remote workers now have the option of going into the office at some point in the working week – of meeting colleagues and, as the cliché has it, gossiping around the water cooler.

What will happen when a company with a staff of 100 builds an office for 20? I am writing this a few hours before Philip Hammond stands up to deliver his Budget speech. No-one would be surprised to see him announce further investment in digital technology – something that will be seized on by companies as they see the chance to build the ‘office of the future’ with its attendant cost savings. But something which employees may view rather differently.

That is not to say people are harking back to the days of the Luddites – English textile workers in the 19th Century who destroyed weaving machines that they saw as being used to get rid of labour – but they may be right to be worried. Virtually everyone welcomes the advances technology has brought: let me freely admit that I am totally dependent on it and howl like a baby if the internet is down for five minutes.

What will the future bring?

But both employers and employees are going to face serious challenges in the next few years. Employers will need to keep an increasingly distant workforce engaged and motivated. Millennials may find that their desire to work flexibly is readily seized on by their employers – and translates not into working flexibly but into working alone, with meetings conducted by virtual reality and sales figures and reports handed over to the AI assistant. In the future, it may not be just the elderly that are lonely…

Jessica sighed. Another two hours before her AI Carer came round. And then no more contact until 9727 turned up on Friday. She still remembered the day her boss had suggested working from home. No more commuting, no more traffic. It had seemed such a good idea. Then her boss lost his job to an AI robot. She should have made an effort and gone into the office, but the weekly VR conference was so convenient. Until her access was cancelled. What was it her grandmother had said? ‘Be careful what you wish for…’