Remote work. New-age communication tools. The desire for meaningful workplace culture.
Today’s professional environments look nothing like their predecessors. Consider for a moment how the Industrial Revolution shaped workforce habits in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Then, imagine being a railroad or coal-mine worker in the Second Industrial Revolution (also known as the Technological Revolution), clocking in and out, in and out. We forget that it wasn’t long ago when the term “workplace culture” didn’t even exist. We were supposed to adjust to the demands of work—not the other way around.
However, times have changed.
By 2020, 50% of the workforce will be remote. On top of that, the gig economy is booming, and according to CNN, 43% of the US workforce is expected to soon be made up of freelancers. More and more companies are distributed all over the world. People’s expectations for what a “successful” career now includes much more than just a salary and paid vacation days—workers desire mentorship, team cohesion, a larger sense of purpose, even opportunities to invest in their own personal development.
In short, the entire landscape is changing—fast. And the next big shift is going to be from all these new digital tools haphazardly running our lives to smart offices.
Here are the 5 micro trends moving the macro trend of “smart offices” into our everyday lives:
1. Distributed Work
One of the biggest workplace trends today is the rise of remote work.
For context, the remote workforce has grown 140% since 2005. And interestingly enough, Stanford actually conducted a study showing remote workers took fewer sick days and were actually 13% more productive than their in-office counterparts.
Whether we’re talking about teams in the same state but some working from an office and others working from home, or we’re talking about different time zones in the same country, or if we’re talking about managing teams on opposite ends of the earth, distributed work is no longer up for discussion. It’s effective in allowing employees to have a sense of freedom. It’s efficient in the sense that you can hire anyone from any part of the world. And most of all, it’s allowing for an unseen level of global collaboration.
However, in order to effectively manage such distributed teams (especially hundreds or even thousands of employees), it’s imperative that everyone is on the same page. This is where smart office environments (digital or not), communication tools specifically, will play a big role.
2. Communication Tools
Building on the above, the prevalence of communication tools today is changing the way we, as human beings, interact with one another.
Email, Facebook Messenger, Slack, each of these tools (and more) has redefined what “effective communication” looks like in today’s day and age. A smart office, then, would be the culmination of all these different mediums into a cohesive and understood approach to human interaction within the office environment—internally and externally.
For example, you might have a physical sensor in your office to let people quickly be able to know whether you’re in the office or not—which would better protect your time and availability. Instead of me sending a co-worker a Slack message and then wondering why he or she isn’t responding, artificial intelligence can let me know that based on historical data, this co-worker of mine typically replies 32 minutes after a message is received. Or, right around this time of day, the individual steps out for lunch and isn’t usually active again for another hour.
In a digital world of distributed work, these seemingly tiny details can make a huge difference—in efficiency, yes, but primarily in feeling understood.
3. Smart Assistants
I also believe that smart assistants are going to continue improving the pain-staking moments in our lives where human error thrives.
For example, if I say, “Hey, I need to schedule a meeting with Mark,” the smart assistant will easily be able to “talk” to Mark’s smart assistant, analyze both of our calendars, reference historical data, and then schedule a meeting for both of us. In addition, these smart assistants will know when I work, when I work best, and when I typically don’t work at all.
Where this becomes incredibly effective is when a smart assistant has to choose between two pockets of the day to schedule a meeting—let’s say 10:00 a.m. is available, and 3 p.m. is available. By being “aware” of how I typically construct my days, and when I am most likely to be productive, the smart assistant would then choose to book the meeting for 3:00 p.m. instead of 10:00 a.m. because it knows that I do my best work from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and doesn’t want to be a disruption.
Taking that one step further, a smart office would then learn how to optimize for certain moments. If the smart assistant knows I am most productive in the morning, and knows that I do my best work while standing, then it will raise my standing desk at 9:00 a.m. because it knows I am going to be at the office by 9:00 a.m.
4. Work-Life Balance
Right now, Slack will ping me at midnight because I don’t have Do Not Disturb on.
As we imagine ideal smart office circumstances in the future, it is only a matter of time before software begins to learn whether or not a message is urgent or not. Depending on the time of day, the person sending it, even the contents of the message, all these variables will dictate whether or not it’s worthwhile to wake me up out of my sleep at 1:00 a.m. in order to get my attention.
Combined with the growing trend of distributed culture, these optimizations around work-life balance will become more and more important. Right now, our digital society expects everyone to be online and active 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. If someone doesn’t respond right away, we wonder what they’re doing. If a message isn’t read for an hour or two, we start to get impatient. But it will be smart offices and the adjustments that come with them, that allows people to be more at ease—because they know they’re reaching the other person at that person’s most ideal window of time.
5. IoT & Maximum Productivity
Last, there is a massively untapped opportunity in the physical office space becoming smarter and smarter.
As devices become smarter, and voice recognition becomes better, it’s not unfathomable for work environments to become chambers of ideal scenarios. If the smart office knows that the employee in the back office does his best work starting at 10:00 a.m. and typically crashes around 2:00 p.m., the smart assistant will (as often as possible) block those hours off for deep work. The smart office may also know the employee tends to turn the lights down a bit in order to focus, so it will dim the lights right at 10:00 a.m. to prompt the habit of deep work.
The same goes for the temperature in the room, maybe the sound of light music playing from the speaker in the corner—all things the employee may do from time to time to help herself focus, except now they’ll be done automatically in order to create the ideal work environment.