The workplace of 2025 will be wherever you want it
- 20 September 2012
- From the section Business
Ever wished you'd never met your boss and your colleagues were holograms?
Within less than a generation, it might be the norm.
The prospect of working with people you'll never actually meet and communicating with virtual colleagues are two of the potential scenarios identified by leading thinkers into how workplaces will evolve by 2025.
Sampling views from a panel representing Imperial College London, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Washington, other international academics and the UK government, research has just been published that points to dramatic changes in the workplace as we know it.
Forget whether it's practical to bring your own technology devices to work - in the future, you may not even have an office.
According to the expert panel, by 2025 technology will allow us to conjure workspaces out of thin air by using interactive surfaces.
Holographic teleconferencing and virtual "dry runs" of projects will consign old office templates to the dustbin.
In their place, multiple surfaces in the home, or shared work hub, will be coated with digitally enabled "smart" paint that will project 3D avatars of colleagues at a single touch.
The MIT Media Lab's Recompose project is already looking at how a physical surface can change in response to gesture-based commands.
In the future, we'll reshape surfaces without touching them, interact with documents, or create objects that can then be 3D printed.
Because of these changes, workforces will become far more dispersed. Workers will have diverse careers in many different locations, working for shorter periods on projects.
In many cases, the people working in this way will not even know each other's identities.
And it's not just employees that need to get set for change, the number of host locations a company uses will increase 50% by 2020, according to separate research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
These data-driven advances will sweep aside established work patterns.
It's a trend that's well under way already. By next year there will be 1.2 billion connected consumer electronics devices in more than 800 million homes with broadband connections globally, says IBM.
Policies such as "bring your own device" are becoming more popular as the functions on consumer devices allow for more business use.
It makes sense that if you can have one device to store personal and work information, it beats using two separate devices.
Over time, ubiquitous computing through networked chips embedded into everything around us means that the mobile phone, and eventually goggles and active contact lenses, will be the gateway to virtual work spaces and collaborative projects. One blink and we can be transported right into the heart of our "offices".
No need to even worry about bringing your own device if that just means bringing yourself - and if there's no physical office to go to anyway.
The blending of devices for work and for personal use will be taken to the nth degree.
As the range and capacity of what is achievable on these devices increases, it'll lead to massive collaborations.
Because of greater connectivity and hugely dispersed workforces, we'll mimic the organised chaos of a bee or ant colony.
Groups of workers will be organised digitally across the globe, and kept in touch with this in-built technology that'll allow us to work on the move whenever we choose.
It's understandable if it all this sounds a bit cyborg.
"There's no need to be afraid," says Mads Thimmer, founder of Danish emerging technologies network Innovation Lab.
"The beauty of the online society to come is that it will have an off button. That's why it is all so attractive."
Data-driven innovation underpinned by communications infrastructure is going to force through some enormous changes in the workplace and how many of us do our jobs.
Technology will be able to set us free from many of the restrictions of current work patterns, and may mean we all work a bit less too.
The absent boss and virtual colleagues may well catch on.
Mark Heraghty is managing director at Virgin Media Business. This article contains extracts from an upcoming research paper entitled Future Laboratory.