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Whether you’re brand-new to the workforce or you’re a veteran, it’s clear modern technology has always played a role in reshaping how we work — and the places where we do that work. With that in mind, let’s talk about the effects modern technologies have had on our workspaces and what they look like, what they’re like to work in and what they might look like someday soon.
Collaboration Like Never Before
Improved cooperation between people in any setting is one of the primary reasons to explore new technology. And when it comes to the modern workplace, we’ll have more tools than ever for working more closely with one another:
- Collaborating on documents and presentations in real time, and without any lost changes, is easier than ever thanks to cloud platforms like Dropbox, OneDrive and iWork.
- Screen sharing provides a way for people to view and work on the same project even when they can’t be together in the same facility.
- Augmented reality provides a way for multiple parties to manipulate virtual objects placed in a physical work environment. The result is a shared set of schematics and work steps, and a much more immersive and detailed training or assembly environment.
This is the briefest of looks at how today’s and tomorrow’s offices might improve their collaboration in-house and with remote clients.
It’s an idea that extends to communication tools, too. Fax is long gone, and it’s been evident for a while now that even venerable old email isn’t as useful, or as secure, as it used to be. And it certainly isn’t secure enough for use in a work environment that’s subject to HIPAA or other security guidelines.
Even something like a secure instant messaging platform, for which the modern workplace is nearly spoiled for choices, represents a much more convenient way for employees to check in with one another or their managers, track project progress and exchange data and documents securely.
Digital Inventories and Desktop Manufacturing
Now that 3D printers and additive manufacturing are within reach of companies of even relatively modest means, all types of companies and workplaces have a potentially revolutionary asset at their disposal. Having access to a printer that can handle plastics, resins and metals isn’t just a breakthrough for manufacturing and assembly companies — it could have ramifications for companies of all kinds that interact with the manufacturing industries for any purpose:
- Companies that design replacement or aftermarket parts, and companies that supply critical components to larger companies for inclusion in their products
- Warehouses, shipping and logistics companies that stock, store, distribute and deliver unfinished products for assembly or spare and interchangeable parts for industrial equipment
- Companies and teams that perform maintenance on property and equipment and that source replacement parts on an ongoing basis
In each of these scenarios, there’s potentially a huge number of logistical steps required for a manufactured part or component to make it from its source, or vendor, to where it can get incorporated into a product on an assembly line or a machine that needs maintenance. Among other things, additive manufacturing can help each of the above parties maintain a digital inventory for on-demand fabrication, rather than keeping a massive physical supply on hand.
Expect 3D printers to cause significant disruption, and open up lots of potential, for those working on shop floors and assembly lines, and for maintenance contractors and other types of companies. Doing trial runs for product variations, fabricating replacement parts for older equipment for which OEM parts are no longer available, broadening customization options for customers and shortening the procurement supply chain considerably are just a few of the possibilities of additive manufacturing.
Vanishing Headquarters and a Decentralized Workforce
There are two reasons Amazon.com decided to split its latest headquarters across two separate locations. The first is that it’s a massive company and it can afford to. But the second reason is Amazon knows business is less centralized these days than ever — thanks in large part to many of the technologies we’ve discussed here today.
If you can believe it, some forecasters in the big business community, albeit a minority, predict as much as 75 percent of the workforce could be reporting to their jobs remotely by the end of 2020.
Although, as we’ve seen, multiple technologies allow the workforce greater levels of project accountability and new ways to collaborate, it’s also letting us breathe a little easier in terms of how we organize our lives. Using technology to promote a less centralized workforce and to encourage telecommuting can help entire companies realize benefits like:
- Far fewer distractions in the workplace as teams grow and change over time
- The potential for reduced employee turnover, as employees can better balance their work and personal lives
- Potentially higher productivity
- Potentially higher morale and better personal health, due to scheduling flexibility and fewer stressors
On the management side of things, having employees report from home offices reduces company overhead and general operational expenses. There will likely never be a substitute for an in-person meeting for certain things, but the personal and operation benefits of a more mobile workforce are hard to ignore.
A Smarter Office and a Leaner Environmental Footprint
The IoT — or Internet of things — is a preview of a future where Internet connectivity is an integral part of every device, and we know more about our surroundings, our workflows, our companies, our assets, our equipment, our personnel, our vehicles and our vendors than ever before.
Within the workplace, the IoT facilitates all manner of minor and major conveniences. Do you work in a “smart office”? Do you have an important meeting coming up at 10 a.m.? If so, your office might be able to query your schedule and have the computer and projector turned on, the coffee brewing, the lights set to “let’s-make-a-deal” levels of ambiance and the shades drawn perfectly to frame the view outside your company’s windows.
As we said, these are relatively minor conveniences, although they might go a long way toward setting the right mood and putting your best foot forward when meeting with clients. And even before you apply workplace automation and Internet-connected appliances, modern interior and material design have provided vast and appealing options for mobile, mixed-use, modular or purpose-driven office and workspaces. The result is an environment that can feel designed for comfort and productivity in equal measure, and that balances openness with the human need for privacy.
There’s a less frivolous use for modular workspaces and the deployment of IoT devices, however, and it has to do with environmental sustainability. Even seemingly minor upgrades like smart lighting and HVAC systems, which can detect and prioritize rooms with occupants, can reduce operating expenses and promote a smaller carbon footprint.
Like the “smart home,” the “smart office” has felt like a far-off dream for a while now. But developments in a few key technologies have made the concept more realistic than ever and brought the office of tomorrow even closer.