Say goodbye to the office you know today

The way we work is in a constant state of flux but the changes taking place today are particularly profound. The work many of us do today is virtually science fiction compared to what our parents knew.
Written by Marc Orchant, Contributor on

The way we work is in a constant state of flux but the changes taking place today are particularly profound. The work many of us do today is virtually science fiction compared to what our parents knew. We work virtually. We telecommute. We time-shift. We have more computing power in the small device on our hip or in our bag than the behemoths that used to sit on our desks ever provided. We enjoy instant access to a quantity of information that was unimaginable even a generation ago.

When I watch movies like I, Robot or Minority Report with my 14 year-old son it's obvious that his reaction to the future technology in those stories is utterly different from my reaction to the technology in the original Star Trek series I watched when I was about his age. Back then, the idea of having access to gadgets like the communicator or tricorder was a fantasy. My son looks at Tom Cruise manipulating data objects and accessing services on a virtual display as big as the wall and has a completely different reaction.

Both the kid I was and the kid he is say pretty much the same thing when these visions of the future appear on the screen. "That is sooo cool!" The difference is, he expects he'll be using that technology a few years from now. And at the rate we're accelerating, I can't argue with him.

In a classic case of art imitating life, I see the same fundamental change taking place in our expectations of our work and the tools we use to accomplish it. We are experiencing the literal reinvention of the work we do in something very close to real time. Ray Kurzweil offers an interesting perspective on this ever-accelerating rate of change is his new book The Singularity is Near. In a discussion about how we perceive change and how that perception is very different from the objective reality we actually experience, he writes:

"Even sophisticated commentators, when considering the future, typically extrapolate the current pace of change over the next ten years or one hundred years to determine their expectations. I describe this way of looking at the future as the intuitive linear view.

But a serious assessment of the history of technology reveals that the technological change is exponential. Exponential growth is a feature of any evolutionary process, of which technology is a primary example.

Almost everyone I meet has a linear view of the future. That's why people tend to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term but underestimate what can be achieved in the long term."

Ray is a big thinker, tackling big concepts in this and his previous books. Office Evolution will focus on concepts a bit less lofty but, I think, a whole lot more personal and immediate. The evolving nature of office or knowledge work. The ways, both good and bad, that technology continues to impact our productivity. How our increasing mobility, afforded by ever-more portable technology and time- and place-shifted access to information and people is redefining both the nature of the work we do and how we go about doing it.

So while I will be writing about "office" in the context that probably first came to mind when you saw the title to this blog - the productivity suite from a certain software company in Redmond -  there's a lot more to talk about than that. There are an increasing number of alternatives like OpenOffice, Star Office, and WordPerfect. Apple's iWork suite gets more interesting with each release. And there's the emerging Software as a Service (Saas) explosion taking place that Phil Wainewright covers so well here at ZDNet. Something he wrote last September has stuck with me ever since. In that post, Phil made a very compelling argument about why the web and SaaS would ultimately succeed not by replacing, but by redefining how software impacts our work.

"Where the Web comes into its own is in collaborative applications, such as jointly authoring a report or an article or designing a presentation in co-operation with a virtual team of domain experts. Before we had the Internet, of course, people used to congregate in offices for the precise purpose of performing this kind of collaboration. That's why I say Microsoft's suite would be more accurately named Cubicle. It was originally developed with no collaborative capabilities whatsoever, and whatever capabilities have subsequently been grafted on are pretty lamentable on the whole, up to and including SharePoint. The product thus bears little or no relation to the true concept of offices as people experience and use them in the real world."


 Spot on.

Mobility and productivity are areas I'll explore as well. Tablet PCs, mini-PCs you can hold in the palm of your hand, and converged devices like Blackberry, Treo, and Windows Smartphones provide ways to work in places we never have been able to before. Even something as common as the pocket-sized USB drives that have all but replaced floppy disks can be used to assemble a complete software and personal data environment that frees you from any particular PC. EV-DO, municipal WiFi, and other increasingly available and affordable connectivity options create new opportunities to shift where and when we work.

That can be a trap, as many of us have learned. Always on and always connected makes it awfully easy to be always working. In order to carve out time for family, friends, and personal pursuits we need to impose a little of our own order on the chaos. Productivity is a loose term that means different things to different people. To me it means using technology to reduce the time I spend doing routine, time-consuming tasks so I can focus my time on what I need and want to get done. It also means finding techniques and practices to keep work in its place and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Welcome to Office Evolution. I'm looking forward to sharing some of what I've learned along the way and hearing from you. Leave a comment about how your work is evolving, how you address productivity and balance, and what tools, tips, and tricks you've adopted. When you have another approach to the one I propose, chime in. If you think I've gone completely mad, say so. Thanks for stopping by.

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