If Work Is Digital, Why Do We Still Go to the Office?

“Distance will die,” or so predicted British economist Frances Cairncross, along with a host of social and media theorists, following the spread of the internet in the 1990s. So, why go to work when work can come to you? Especially, when instantaneous communication with everyone else on the planet could soon render traditional offices obsolete.

However, history has charted a far different course. Today’s technology does allow global and instantaneous communication, but most of us still commute to offices for work every day. Telecommuting from our homes has not picked up as much as many had thought it would. Meanwhile, lots of corporations are investing significantly in a new or renovated office space, located in the heart of urban areas.

What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries. And that is why the quality of a physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever.

We have already witnessed the transition from the mid-century warren of cubicles into more sociable, open, dynamic, and flexible spaces. More recently, co-working has gained traction, demonstrating the value of sharing a space with a community of like-minded people. These spaces are open to different disciplines and promote vibrant interaction as well as ideation.

As they strive to engineer creativity, co-working space providers are also experimenting with quantifying human interactions. And this is where they may have the biggest influence on how offices are eventually designed. Understanding how the workforce connects within a flexible working environment is crucial for designing and operating next-generation offices. New digital tools are emerging to measure human connections and spatial behavior as well as how these relate to productivity and creativity. Real-time data analytics paired with digitally integrated furniture and buildings are just the beginning. Eventually, they may even enable the creation of workplaces that respond and evolve on their own over time. Throughout history, buildings have been rigid and uncompromising, more like a corset than like a T-shirt. But, with better data on occupancy, we could design a built environment that adapts to humans, rather than the inverse.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that technology will transform and revitalize workspaces, far from making offices obsolete as predicted by the digital pioneers of the 1990s. The transformation of our work environment is only just beginning, but it could have a major impact on architects, developers, corporations, and the society at large in years to come. We could soon work in a more sociable and productive way. And with the ever changing environment, the unpromising ‘distance will die’ may be reversed to new proximities.

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