If you spend your working day in an office change may be coming
Smart technology and the division of labor erodes the need for traditional offices
Urbanization will also increase mobile working trend, Andrew Keen says
Editor’s Note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur, professional skeptic and the author of “The Cult of the Amateur” and “Digital Vertigo.” This article was compiled at FutureCast, a conference in Palo Alto, California, featuring a conversation about the future of work between Keen and technology entrepreneur and writer Vivek Wadhwa.
We spend the majority of our lives at work. Indeed, most of us still spend hours a week commuting to a physical office where we are paid to beaver away in Dilbert-like cubicles. Some of us love it. Some of us hate it.
But what is the future of work in our digital age of always-on connectivity? Can the old office survive or will we all soon work from home and rarely even meet our fellow workers?
Here are five reasons we believe that the 20th century office is history.
1. We now carry our smart devices everywhere we go. By 2020, Ericsson research predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world. And many of these networked devices – like self-driving cars or Google Glasses – will be so smart to create what the futurist Kevin Ashton calls an “Internet of Things.”
But what about a smart office?
The problem with the physically fixed office is that it is, by definition, dumb. The traditional downtown office isn’t flexible, adaptable or, above all, mobile. It’s increasingly an archaic leftover of industrial society in today’s hyper-connected, infinitely mobile world.
In today’s networked age, we no longer need to travel to work. Instead, work travels with us wherever we go.
Anything that can be done in the office can be just as easily done on our smartphones, tablets and laptops. That local coffee house or the wi-fi enabled plane or the smart car or, above all, the connected home, are now at least as productive and collaborative a working environment as any traditional office.
This fundamental change in the nature of work is brilliantly captured in an illuminating new book by Scott Berkun entitled: “The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work”. Berkun spends a year working at the blogging software company WordPress in which everybody works remotely and there are no schedules, few meetings and even fewer rules. As more and more work from home, Berkun concludes, none of us will need to wear pants in the future.
The very nature of work is radically changing too. As more and more of us are self-employed in what Daniel Pink calls “The Free Agent Nation”, work can no longer be marginalized in a nine-to-five office. And work – as the Richard Florida argues in “The Rise of the Creative Class” – is increasingly dependent on creativity rather than obeying the orders of a boss within a hierarchical organization.
For better or worse, work in today’s digital society is ubiquitous. As the distinguished economist Tyler Cowen notes in his controversial book, “Average Is Over” , society is increasingly diverging into a small elite of highly skilled networked workers and a massive underclass of average people whose skills have less and less value.
The old office is for average people, average ideas and average companies. If you want to excel, escape your cubicle and take your work wherever you go.
2. But what about the division of labor, I hear you saying. Surely we’ll still need offices to gather people of different skills who can collectively create products.
Yet networked technology solves this problem. Yes, even in an age when Average Is Over, we’ll still need groups of people with different skills to produce things. But networked technology enables us to put together teams outside the physical walls of the traditional office.
The death of the office may be partly a generational thing. As the Gen Y expert, Dan Schwabel, notes in “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success” , today’s millennial generation of digital natives are instinctively group-orientated and so are naturally comfortable with networks like Mobileworks that enable them to collaborate with others.
On Taskrabbit, any task – from traditional bookkeeping to 3D manufacturing to cooking or cleaning – can be outsourced. Anyone can run a company without needing an army of full-time staff.
It’s not just physical offices that will be impacted by these collaborative platforms. As Chris Anderson notes in “Makers”, the 3D printing revolution will eventually replace factories too. And so networks like Taskrabbit or Mobileworks will eventually become the virtual manufacturing plants of the digital age – enabling us to produce clothing or electronics from the comfort of our own desktops.
Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen says that “software is eating the world”.
Yes. And it’s eating the office too.
3. Video conferencing technology from companies like Skype is now so cheap and reliable that virtual meetings are just as productive as any office meeting. Video conferencing is also more productive because it enables multi-tasking.
This is more than just convenience thing. Video has emerged as the dominant medium of our digital age – a mode of communication with which digital natives are, in some ways, more comfortable than physical interaction.
On YouTube, the video platform with more than a billion monthly unique users in 56 discrete national markets, 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute with 6 billion hours of video being consumed each month. The short-messaging video network Vine has gone viral. And we are now using 2 billion minutes on Skype each day.
So how much is 2 billion minutes?
“That’s enough time to travel to the moon and back over 225,000 times, walk around Earth more than 845 times or travel to Mars more than 5,400 times,” says the Skype blog.
And it’s certainly enough time to make the modern office redundant.
4. The distinction between work and leisure is, for better or worse, undermined by email. In the 20th century, we went to the office to work and then came home to enjoy our leisure. But email means that we can never escape the office. When anyone can be reached at any time, the traditional office becomes an anachronism.
According to the literary critic John Freeman, the “average corporate worker,” gets about 200 e-mail messages a day. That has led to what Freeman calls “The Tyranny of Email”, a situation in which we can never really escape the office, never maintain the old fashioned distinction between leisure and work.
5. From Sao Paolo to Seoul to Los Angeles to Beijing, commuting can take almost as much time as the workday itself. As these megacities dominate the 21st century, accessing the downtown office will be less and less viable.
The rise of the megacity – cities with more than 10 million people – is one of the most significant developments of the early 21st century. By 2025, the U.N. predicts nine new megacities in Asia will help bring the total to 37. All but eight of these new megacities will be in the developing world – and the quality of life for millions will be determined by the quality of their cities.
The greatest blight of these megacities will be traffic. In contrast, these massive new cities will – like Seoul – be so wired as to empower their inhabitants lightning-fast communications.
And so, as urban life becomes more and more central in the developing world, more productive and happier workers will stay home and rely on smart technology to communicate.
The idea of the “Smart City” is now fashionable. But I prefer the idea of the “Smart Worker”. And the smart worker of the future will chose to work from home rather than wasting hours commuting many miles on the super congested roads of their megacities.
The FutureCast conference brought together entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, writers and technologists to imagine the future of 21st century digital society. It was organized and produced by Andrew Keen and was hosted by AT&T and Ericsson at AT&T’s Palo Alto Foundry.