Tomorrow’s Office

Business Week looks ahead to the offices we will work in:

Many scientists at universities and government labs — and at companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and even office-furniture maker Steelcase — [are working on] changing the office environment. They’re developing desk chairs that will sense when you’re stressed and, perhaps, tell your boss to offload some of your work; PCs that can figure out during your senior moments where you’ve seen a particular name; and desktops that, with a push of a button, transform themselves into computer monitors to help facilitate discussion during a roundtable meeting.

All of these ideas have one goal in common: To raise white-collar productivity — or at least preserve the huge gains of recent years while avoiding employee burnout. The idea is to build upon the innovations that have transformed offices over the past 15 years. As recently as 1990, voice mail was still being introduced in Corporate America, e-mail was largely self-contained within companies, and attending a meeting in another city meant going there.

Since then, Net-based forms of communication — such as e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing, abetted by lighter and more versatile cell phones and laptop computers — have sped up both work and business decisions. The tools have improved so rapidly that “customers are starting to feel that office technology has come about as far as it can,” says Tom Gruver, a marketing manager at Microsoft. “There are no more expectations of productivity increases.”

Experts, however, swear that office innovation is about to take another leap. One reason they cite is technology advances, such as the ability to make larger computer screens. More powerful than that, however, is the need for technologies to help keep an aging workforce spry, that can compensate for the growing complexity of many jobs, and that meet the needs of increasingly mobile employees. Taken together, such technologies will ultimately change the definition of the modern office.

In fact, the idea that an office is an enclosure with walls is already disappearing, thanks to technologies such as Wi-Fi, which provides high-speed access to a network or the Internet from any place a connected employee chooses to wander, be it down the hall or to a caf, airport, or hotel.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.