American broadcaster Walter Cronkite made a programme about the office of the
future in 1967, he forecast the end of commuting thanks to a desk at home laden
with screens for making video calls, checking the news and tracking stock
prices. There was even a closed circuit television system for monitoring
activity in the other rooms – on Cronkite's screen, women in pinafores were
making the bed.
past 40 years, the idea of home-working has been more of an ambition than a
reality for most people. More than half of us still work in a traditional
office at a fixed desk. But Dr Nicola Millard, a futurologist working for BT
whose full-time job is to gaze ahead at how our lives are likely to change,
believes the reinvention of work is finally under way.
has a degree in psychology and a PhD in computer science, has worked for BT for
23 years in research and customer service, helping to design systems for
call-centre workers, before being appointed as the group's futurologist.
however, prefers to describe herself as a "soonologist" because her
job is to advise BT and its big corporate clients on how working life will
evolve over the next five years – and she reckons we have reached a point at
which the majority of people in "knowledge-based" roles can now do
their jobs with little more than a phone, a computer and an internet connection.
Work, she says, can now be a state of mind, rather than a place. "There is
no reason why knowledge workers shouldn't all be working flexibly in five
years' time," she says. Millard reckons the wide availability of highly
portable computers, from smartphones to tablets and laptops, means that rather
than sitting at Cronkite's formal "computerised communications
console" watching maids making beds, professionals will more likely be on
their bed, working in their pyjamas.
favourite place to hunker down and get productive is at what she calls the
"coffice" – which could be a coffee shop, hotel lobby or airport
lounge: places where the background noise provides a buzz but there are no
colleagues to cause a distraction.
four criteria for working are that I need good coffee, I need good cake, I need
great connectivity – the Wi-Fi wings to fly me into the cloud – and I need
company. But I don't necessarily work in the office if I want to concentrate. I
will go to the office if I want to socialise about work."
office is BT's research laboratory at Adastral Park in Suffolk, a pioneering
centre for technology and telecommunications, where a scale model of BT's
global network is used to test the broadband kit developed by the group and its
About 10% of
BT's employees work from home, a fact that helps well over 90% of mothers at
the company return to their jobs after maternity leave. However, 73% of BT
staff are set up to work from anywhere, with laptop access to their company
Millard's work is about the future of offices and business meetings, and
although we are now more mobile, video calling and conference calling have made
travelling to meetings less of an imperative. BT, she says, has adapted Dolby
surround-sound technology for conference calls and is currently researching its
definition microphones and multiple speakers give participants audio cues that
can help replace the visual ones we usually rely on, such as facial expressions
and hand gestures.
in the tone of voice and breathing are picked up, background sound is also
transmitted, helping to distinguish one speaker from another, and voices are
arranged in a virtual circle around the listener, with sound transmitted from
left, right or straight ahead.
is changing, and with it the design of our workplaces. One solution gaining
popularity, she says, is the "activity based office", which is zoned
by need. There can be presentation rooms, areas for socialising, pods for solo
work, larger rooms for brainstorming and even police-style incident rooms where
bid proposals are written by specially assembled teams.
and cross-fertilisation, she says, can be promoted by assigning staff a locker
instead of a desk.
some offices these days have concentric circles of activities, with quiet rooms
by the windows, areas for making phone calls further in and zones for
presentations, eating and drinking at the centre, creating a hub of activity at
the heart of the collective space.
describes herself as a collector of offices, says: "The office is a
collaboration tool and should be designed for collaboration. The open plan
office is a product of the 1970s when we thought that by forcing everyone
together, by breathing the same air, we would collaborate. But that's not how
of course, also has its drawbacks. The average person is interrupted every
three minutes during their working day, according to the London Business
School, and our plethora of gadgets have made for more disruptions.
tasks have been found to take twice as long to finish and contain twice as many
errors as uninterrupted efforts: it can take between 12 and 20 minutes to
resume a complex task after being interrupted.
to multitask has not evolved alongside the computer chip, says Millard; the
constant switching between tasks required by technology is tiring and damages
For her, the
worst distraction is email, which she calls a "time vampire" and only
checks twice a day. For urgent communication, she uses text messages. "We
have these devices that are constantly on and constantly on us. I describe them
as screaming three-year-olds. They are always demanding our attention and we
are infinitely distractable as human beings."
working without assigned desks will help create private time for tasks that
require high levels of quiet and concentration, but that could generate
problems finding colleagues. Here again, technology is the solution.
for example with RFID (Radio-frequency indentification) technology in staff ID
cards, allows employers to track workers.
also broadcast their arrival in the building to their social network, or check
in at a particular desk using a code.
might be a Big Brother step too far for some.
Source: Juliette Garside, The Guardian. Published: 2nd January 2013