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What’s the Virtual Future of the Physical Workplace

By Manisha Natarajan

Having previously spoken about what it takes to design the best modern workspaces, I will today delve into the workplace component that is gaining more prominence with every passing day: technology. Tech is becoming more ubiquitous, even as it becomes more integral to workflows and operational processes – and it will redefine how humans operate at work.

Because, and it’s important to remember this, the workspace of tomorrow will no longer be a place where people simply come to work. It will be a comprehensive ecosystem in its own right, a technology- and environment-friendly space that will thrive on and promote innovation and creativity by encouraging people to think, collaborate, recharge, and recuperate.

So, here’s looking at the cutting-edge of workplace technologies and their impact on the human workforce.

An office in your pocket

There is no doubt that mobile and remote work saves the time and money spent on commutes and eases pressure on office space. On the flip side, however, it is argued that virtual meetings lead to problems associated with social isolation like loneliness, and that the decline in collaboration and interaction with co-workers actually decreases creativity and even impacts chances of promotions and raises. HR specialists worry that it is impossible to build a “team spirit” or work “shoulder to shoulder” on projects.  There is merit in the latter argument because despite the rapidly changing social environment, people still need to meet, to discuss, to bond beyond the screen.

Enter the hologram

If tech throws up a challenge, tech finds the solution! Companies have found a way to beat the isolation with holograms and virtual water cooler rooms, where people can have virtual conversations just like in traditional offices. German Startup HoloMeeting has developed software for Microsoft HoloLens which allows teams to collaborate and interact remotely in a mixed reality environment. And unlike tele and video calls, there is no mute button.  Participants can gather in a virtual lobby for quick pre-chats or drop into your virtual room for a quiet discussion, again mimicking a physical office environment. Get ready, the virtual reality headset will soon replace the multiple screens found in today’s offices.

The virtual versus the physical

Will virtual, augmented reality take away the need for physical offices and commutes? VR headsets, and advances like virtual gloves that squeeze your palm whenever you shake hands with a colleague in cyberspace might be a reality soon, but they will mostly be found in offices. As Lyron Bentovim, president and CEO of The Glimpse Group, a virtual and augmented reality platform company told recently, VR is on the cusp of taking off, but hasn’t yet. “Until then,” trying to replace physical offices with his simulations is “like selling software to people who don’t have computers.”

My colleague the robot

Robots that increasingly look and act like human beings can now read you the evening news and serve you at stores and restaurants. They even replace your therapist with something like Woebot – a robotic companion built by Stanford University professors to help people with their mental health. Chatbots and virtual assistants have already replaced secretaries and helpdesks in most modern concerns. So instead of looking to AI and other technologies only to ensure operational efficiency and accuracy in their mechanical processes like many companies do now, workers will soon get performance feedback, personal development, coaching and evaluation through an AI platform. Many offices might soon have robots sitting next to humans to help speed things along. Of course, you can’t ask them out for lunch or a date. Or maybe you can, if you are nerdy enough!

And Finally

Until everyone gets a smashing ability to create a virtual office, virtually from anywhere, physical workspaces are here to stay. Offices of the future only require a rethink:  technology, atmosphere, design, amenities. Think airy open spaces designed to spur creativity and innovation.

Wearable technology, integrated with building automation systems and big data, will allow the office system to immediately sense and identify our presence, and provide preferred settings and relevant information as we move through the workspace. The network management nightmare will be handled by artificial intelligence. Flexible furniture and room configurations will ensure that the space can be quickly configured to adapt to changing needs. These choices will soon become increasingly personalized and automated. Instead of being just a workspace, the modern office will also allow workers rest and recuperation, with sofa sized pods for a quick nap, 24/7 multi-cuisine canteens, concierge and laundry services, perhaps even a small swimming pool. Larger multi-story offices will allow mobility from one floor to another using magnetic levitation and pneumatic tube transportation. What a ride it promises to be.

And given the Gen Z fixation (and rightly so) with the environment, most offices will have to prioritize on basics like energy capture and waste disposal facilities to ensure they generate more energy than they use and cut down dramatically on their carbon footprint.

Welcome to tomorrow’s office.

(The author is Head – Marketing, Brand and Communications, Brookfield Properties and the views expressed in the article are her own)

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