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Your desk is a guide to the future of work
by Robert Hillard

The future of work is the topic on everyone’s lips. The talk of automation and artificial intelligence can seem really abstract and alien, making the future seem scarier than really needs to be the case. A good way for white collar workers to think about what lies ahead is by looking at their office surroundings and how those might change in the coming years.

Anyone worried about what work might look like in the coming decades should remember a worker of the 1970s would feel like a fish out of water if they were magically transported to today. The desk of a white collar, clerical, worker would likely have had “in” and “out” trays, stationary and a phone (an extension of a central number). By the 1980s, they may have had their own direct phone number and possibly, depending on their job, access to a computer terminal for very basic tasks. Reports were manually typed, with large offices and senior staff having access to typists who would convert their handwritten notes into neat reports. Rows of those typists were exacting workers who had to mix speed with accuracy and were the ultimate slaves to their desks.

The desk of the turn of the century was very different. The trays were rapidly disappearing. Every desk had a personal computer with a graphical interface and the tethered phone was giving way to IP telephony allowing hot desking to make an appearance. The basic mobile phones and dial-up networking that most workers had at home meant that working remotely was becoming possible, if not practical, for many tasks. Working from home was still called “teleworking” referring to the use of the telephone as the predominant infrastructure.

Ten years later, the desk didn’t look very different, just a little more efficient. Internet connections were faster but the equipment was fundamentally the same. Although smart phones were starting to appear, they weren’t ubiquitous and the functions to which they were applied were basic.

Today the desk is starting to change in much more fundamental ways, but the transformation is no more dramatic than the changes that we’ve gone through in the relatively recent past.

Our desk is finally less bound by paper with some evidence that the US, at least, is seeing a reduction in its use as the form factor of tablets is encouraging less paper (having said that, at about 10,000 sheets of paper per worker per year it is still very high). Our technology is also moving from being a passive tool of efficiency to an active driver of activity.

The balance of power may also have turned. Equipment on our desks are starting to monitor the work being done and the worker themselves. Testing whether the white-collar worker is being productive or, when working remotely, whether they are being active at their desk. This is a form of working for the machine rather than the machines working for us and is likely to be the subject of debate in years to come.

Even more dramatic than simply detecting whether the worker is active, the equipment of our desk is increasingly able to allocate tasks between workers. While every good leader argues that we should measure outcomes and outputs rather than effort, a world where workers can be remote and be paid by output can lead to problems.

When there is a break between the supervisor and the supervised, the nature of competition means the rate individuals get paid often gets pushed down. We are already seeing this effect in the so-called “gig economy”. It is likely that governments will need to step in to protect workers, particularly in fields where there is substantial competition.

If understanding the desk of the future is important, what will be surrounding our workspace in the coming decade? For the first time in a long time, the form factor of the devices on that desk are far from “one size fits all”. The single hinge notebook has given way to all forms of tablets. The desk phone is gone and the fax is long gone. It even seems that voice control is finally finding form in technology dubbed “beyond glass” but also challenging the fully open plan office.

Electronic communications are also rapidly changing. Social networks are merging with messaging services and we are just starting to move past email. It is very likely that more structure will be added to the interactions we have through our work activities, probably driven by our artificial intelligence co-workers.

The future of work is uncertain, but not such a radical shift from what we do today. There are risks that we need to navigate but using history as a guide we should be able to manage the transition without a single change on its own tipping over too many desks at once.

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