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The Future of Office
Digitrack

The Future of Office

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Yogesh, an experienced IT Professional and a Green Card Holder, couldn’t any longer resist the entrepreneurial urge that he has been putting off for years; he decided to connect with a few of his friends and professional acquaintances over the social media. What resulted was the initiation of the project team of seven youngsters committed to giving shape to their dream start-up. They were physically located in different geographies - US, India, Middle East and Singapore. Now for over a year and a half they have been connected and focused on the development of the prototype and are ready for test launch in a couple of months. But though they are comfortable with each other and are quite informal and assertive in their interactions, they have not yet met each other physically. They have been working very closely over digital platforms and social networks such as Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom. They do not have an office in the traditional sense. They work in a virtual office (which means they hook up from anywhere at any time. They enjoy the work - full of fun, informality, focus, flexibility and in an “always-on” mode.

Last month, I had to consult a digital marketing freelancer for an assignment on hand that I had to complete against a demanding schedule. I located Philip, a professional with the domain expertise and a good client base. I set up a meeting with him in Bangalore, where he was based, during one of my frequent trips there. We decided to meet up in the Coffee Shop in a downtown Mall. As we settled down for a Cappuccino and quick bite, I enquired where his office was located in the city. He replied, “I carry my office with me wherever I go”, as he opened up his laptop in a clear sign that he was eager to get on with the business without frills.

As we finished our meeting, Philip suggested that he could arrange a visit for me to a client for whom he had recently implemented a similar solution. I nodded. “They are the India Office of a Global IT Company and they are operating out of a prestigious co-working space here”, he said. When we visited them, I was impressed by the look and feel as well as the professionalism of the environment. It looked every inch like an exclusive office of an established corporate house, in this case available at a fraction of the cost and with no administrative hassles.

We walked into a conference room where our host said that he would quickly summon his counterparts from three of their global offices for a quick briefing of their experiences with the digital solution that we were exploring. The conference room had a functional look, with plenty of openness and a couple of desks for stand-up discussions, a few round tables and chairs if we chose to sit down for a huddle. The walls were made of High Definition (HD) screens, from floor to the ceiling, all around. As the meeting started, we had a virtual and immersive experience; the screens around displayed the illustrations and scribblings made by the participants from different global locations as they explained how the project was implemented in Singapore, Dubai and Dublin Offices. The power of such real time, immersive experience to elevate the engagement of participants to higher levels of effectiveness is unthinkable in the traditional boxed-in offices.

The office is changing in structure, style and functionalities. Variety, personalization and flexibility are built into the office infrastructure today. In fact, the physical form of office is no longer important; whatever fits your budget, urgency and work style is the right office for you. Well, the journey towards smart offices has just started. The office is getting digitized and digitalized at a fast pace with the introduction of newer technologies and applications. Digitization refers to the conversion of data from analogue to digital format making analytics, storage and customization facile; digitalization means the transformation of the processes and work practices to digital mode, thereby providing a holistic upgrade to the way the office functions. Tomorrow’s offices would be connected, intelligent and agile and would be designed to enhance both the employee and customer experiences. The work context and culture are getting aligned to digital technologies.

Let us look at some of the defining trends in the transformation of offices from drab workplaces to a smart ecosystem that lifts working together to be an enjoyable and supportive experience.

Remote working is maturing as a preferred operating model. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) enables employees to access their work remotely enabling them to work from anywhere any time. One of the advantages of a connected society is the ability to be mobile and flexible; we can analyze, upload, retrieve or store data as and when we like. This cuts out fatigue, monotony and disengagement of working in the silo-style formal office set up. Remote working is a trend that will continue and expand. A recent survey showed that globally, one-third of big businesses expect more than 50% of their workforce to work remotely by 2020. Some of them even see the possibility of 75% of employees opting to work from home or from distant and dispersed work locations by 2030.

Co-working is becoming increasingly attractive to organizations because of the economy and the ease of scale up. Apart from reducing the drudgery of working in isolation, coworking provides professional and social networking opportunities. Globally, co-hosting of diverse offices by providing state-of-the-art digital infrastructure is attracting huge interest from investors and venture capitalists. According to the recent Global Coworking Survey by Deskmag, a specialized magazine on the industry, there are nearly 2 million employees working out of coworking spaces. The numbers are growing exponentially.

In our metro cities and technology hubs large number of startups, medium sized companies and even some biggies are operating out of co-working spaces. In Bengaluru a number of global multinationals are adopting coworking models for their expansions. The trend of co-working is catching up even in tier 2 cities. In the plug-and-play office infrastructure of a coworking space, your office can start functioning from the word go!

Offices are becoming smarter with the increasing deployment of IoT solutions. Cloud technologies are transforming office functions by bringing in flexibility and ease of communication. Cloud based applications help in cost optimization and improve flexibility in storage and access to data. Cloud environment also facilitates Software- as- a- Service (SaaS) model enabling significant economy on cost of acquisition and upgrade.

Just like fax is no longer in use widely today, the e-mail as a means of intra and inter-office communication is bound to be phased out over the next few years. Instead, with the rise of cloud-based applications, office workers are increasingly able to collaborate using a combination of high-definition video, touch-screens and customized messaging apps; conversation would be saved automatically in the cloud, enabling everyone to access it using their smartphones, tablets and laptops at their convenience. Interactive data walls are already transforming meetings and conferences into lively and engaging sessions supported by real-time analytics.

The office of the future is likely to see widespread application of wearable devices with display, processing, interface, and communication capabilities matching or even surpassing what we can do with tablets and smartphones.

Literally, people will carry their office up their sleeves!

The trend of outsourcing of non-core and support activities is bound to expand.

Common facilities like transportation, security, attendance management, cafeteria, gym, creche, wellness centre, business centre services, IT Help Desk and a host of other services can be pooled and outsourced as managed services with cost and standardization advantages. More outsourcing and contract engagements will lead to leaner offices. The office of the future will more likely be a collaboration of individuals regardless of location and proximity to each other. With the emergence of freelance professionals in almost all functional areas, outsourcing is proving to be a more cost-effective and flexible option than engaging in-house talent.

In the next few years the structure of work would undergo drastic changes with an enabling legal framework for part-time, flexible and temporary work contracts facilitating cost-effective and “as needed” engagement of workforce. The archaic employment laws, which are not in sync with the needs of a digital society, are a major stumbling block for job creation in India. The new federal Government in India is expected to introduce the much-needed flexibility in employment to boost job creation. This change, as and when rolled out, would remove the prohibitive employment regulations and usher in a culture of “hire-as-you-need”. The office work practices would have to factor in a different set of non-permanent workforce.

There is an increasing trend of adopting green technologies in the office infrastructure. The office is becoming more open and multi-purpose by integrating leisure, creativity, recreation and socializing within the workspace. Smart offices would also have features like intelligent lighting, cooling and facilities management with the help of sensor-connected devices. This would result in optimizing electricity consumption, temperature control and water usage.

The future offices will be designed to attract and engage the tech savvy generation who would carry their digitally aligned habits, preferences and lifestyles to the workplace. Conformance to order and discipline have been the features of the formal office; tomorrow’s office should provide the space and motivation for creativity and excitement of working together rather than regimentation and military-style discipline.

As smart technologies lead to newer and more disruptive applications in the office eco- system, anyone with a viable business idea, passion and digital skills can set up, manage and grow his operations with minimal cost and without the burden of investing in elaborate physical infrastructure.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant at Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be reached at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com