Published 30 August 2017 Category: Business, Entrepreneur, Workplace

Being Productive Anywhere With Virtual Offices

As the definition of the workplace changes, dramatic increases in productivity lie ahead.

The idea that the office is a specific place where our professional lives happen is becoming less universal, and less important. These days people can be productive anywhere, thanks to smarter, more numerous mobile devices, faster network access, and a growing number of online collaboration tools. Telecommuting is no longer merely something that the phone company is trying to sell you. And wherever the office may be, wider and better use of social networks, data analytics, and smart technologies such as voice recognition could be poised to increase productivity dramatically—meaning that both real and virtual offices may have fewer people in them.

But while the physical office is changing, certain connotations of the word “office” are not. For instance, hierarchical organisation and place for human interaction - and there’s no indication that these are becoming any less important. Even the most progressive high-tech companies retain many of the organisational trappings of their industrial-age predecessors: full-time managers, organisation charts, job descriptions, and so on. And since humans remain social animals, conventional gathering places will remain important in business. These spaces whether they be conventional offices, temporary ones, or conference facilities - must be made conducive to collaboration. They must also become physically healthy places to spend hours of time, since sedentary work has emerged as a significant health threat.

As the office expands beyond its conventional boundaries, key challenges must be met, including the privacy and security issues posed by a distributed global workforce of people who work digitally and use multiple devices. Consider that people already routinely deal with computers rather than office workers when they make an airline reservation, buy products and arrange for delivery, or troubleshoot a problem with a product they own. If a task involves simple and predictable forms of communication without much nuance or emotion, computers can do just fine, leaving humans to handle an ever-dwindling number of exceptions to the usual procedures or questions.

More far-out advances in artificial intelligence could push productivity even further. Voice recognition, speech synthesis, and automatic translation have improved significantly. And we’ve seen that computers can now accurately understand and reply to questions.

Interestingly, IBM’s Watson supercomputer beat human competitors at Jeopardy!

Skeptics will point out that futurists have been promising an AI-driven revolution in knowledge work for decades. But by now even the skeptics are finding phone numbers with the help of computer-based operators. On top of this, software and social tools can boost the productivity of the remaining human office workers. For example, a customer-service rep who deals with technical questions can work with just one customer at a time on the phone, but it’s easy to handle two or more customers simultaneously if the medium is instant messaging.

The growing prevalence of tablet computers and smart phones presents a double-edged sword. People often grab these devices first thing in the morning, and much of their life - including work - revolves around them. That means an employee can get work done anywhere, but the flip side is that company data goes wherever the worker goes, and the company can’t easily control it. A manager wants to be able to lock you out of your mobile devices if you are fired, so you can’t pilfer anything. And a chief information officer doesn’t want you downloading malware. For some companies, the iPad model solves the latter problem.

In the near future, however, the major mobile platforms will probably introduce some interesting solutions that preserve the benefits of mobile and social computing while imposing some access and security constraints that limit the risk to company data. And when the security issues get sorted out, we may finally achieve the full potential of the distributed workforce.

Even as technologies proliferate and their problems are overcome, offices; no matter how virtual - remain collections of people. It is important to remember that even in this world of freelance and part-time contractors, companies are still desperate to hire good people and retain them. That’s not going to change anytime soon, no matter how many snazzy digital tools we get. The office of the future might have fewer people in it, but the ones who are there will matter more than ever.