Our Home is Not the Office of the Future… Sorry, Not Sorry

The validity of remote working spread around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and stirred the imagination about workspaces. These experts reflect on the past, stir the imagination and explore the technologies that will shape the future of work.

By Jason Lopez

By Jason Lopez June 01, 2021

Video conferencing was about a $6 billion industry in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and other video meeting applications became essential for keeping businesses and organizations going. That momentum is expected to climb even after the pandemic winds down. But is the future of work centered around digital screens?

“I think the pandemic has had us question everything, including our offices and where we work,” said Nicole Peterson, professor of interior design at Iowa State University.

Peterson believes that a physical space is still the center of employee productivity.

“I think some of the changes due to the pandemic are going to really be good. Our offices might be better than they were before.”

The “office of the future” is a notion that has evolved through ancient Egypt, across Europe during the Middle Ages and modern tech epicenter of Silicon Valley. Peterson said mankind has pondered how to improve workspaces for a long time.

“The monks had the scriptorium or a writing room doing tasks that required detail-oriented skills,” she said. “They had standing desks and they required a lot of daylight in those rooms to copy and translate books.”

In modern times, Xerox PARC, the research lab in Silicon Valley renowned for revolutionary advancements in personal computers, laser printing, Ethernet and other digital technologies, focused great attention on designing offices of the future, according to Don Massaro, who headed up the Xerox sales team in the early 1980s.

“It was really about increasing productivity,” said Massaro. “Sure, the technology made it easier to work from home, but that wasn’t its purpose.”

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While high speed internet makes it possible to work from just about anywhere, Massaro said it shook up the concept of getting work done. 

“You don't need an office anymore,” he said. “For the most part you can work from home, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. Some homes are better than others.” 

Rather than seeing video conferencing as the beginning of a new era, Massaro sees it as the end of an era that began with modern telephony in the 1960s. The new era will arrive when virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) technologies become ubiquitous across different industries. 

“VR and AR are going to change everything,” he said. “Yes, you can wear the glasses at home, but you’ll actually be in a shared space with your colleagues.” 

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“It's a little dystopian when you think about it,” said Paul Noll, who studies emerging technologies for Steelcase, which offers a range of architecture, furniture and technology products and services to improve working conditions and workspaces. 

“It's like, ‘Oh my gosh, you can't appreciate the real world for what it is?’ But the promise of interacting with our environment in new ways, with new information, is so great. It has the potential to simplify our lives if done correctly right now.” 

He thinks the real advance of AR and VR won’t be a lifelike 3D experience of a shared space. Instead, these technologies will free people from being locked to a desktop, laptop or smartphone screen. In a virtual office space, information comes to people when they need it, without having to look at a screen or device.

While this scenario is still a work in progress, Peterson said black screens will likely fade into the background and out of sight. 

“There will be a blending of interior space, furniture, and AR/VR,” she said.

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Transcript 

Phone Voice: The office of the future isn't really a new idea, especially when you consider what offices used to be like. 

A Christmas Carol (office scene): The door of Scrooge's counting house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of a tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it for Scrooge kept the coal box in his own room. 

Jason Lopez: That of course is a scene from the Charles Dickens novel, a Christmas Carol. This is the Tech Barometer podcast. And in this story we're exploring the office of the future. But in actuality, for nearly a century before Ebenezer Scrooge arrived on the scene, London was home to new thinking about office space. 

Nicole Peterson: So the old Admiralty office… that was originally a house that was expanded so that they could have office administration for the Royal Navy. 

Jason Lopez: Nicole Peterson is a professor of interior design at Iowa State University. She specializes in office design. 

Nicole Peterson: They were overseeing things from afar. That is also true of the East India company headquarters that was built in London in the 1700s. 

Jason Lopez: In Europe, in the Middle Ages, among the first environments designed for knowledge workers were special rooms in monasteries. 

Nicole Peterson: The monks had the scriptorium or a writing room doing tasks that required detail-oriented skills. They had standing desks and they required a lot of daylight in those rooms to copy and translate books. 

Jason Lopez: And the Uffizi gallery in Florence didn’t start off as gallery… 

Nicole Peterson: They designed it as an office building. And then the art collection grew from the Uffizi and then from the Medici family. 

Jason Lopez: In the 20th century offices became massive palaces with armies of secretaries. 

Nicole Peterson: There was the advent of the typewriter and skyscrapers that were born from steel. 

Jason Lopez: Today, the well-being of employees is a major consideration in office design. 

Nicole Peterson: People really like to work in the coffee shop environment. They like the third place, which it's not an owned space. And so I've seen a lot of employers or workspaces create that environment within the office and within the office setting. 

Don Massaro: What you're seeing here is a huge investment that Xerox made in the office of the future.  

Jason Lopez: This is Don Massaro, now a retired computer industry executive. We met up with him at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where, as we walked around, he pointed out much of the computer hardware that he helped to bring to market, as part of Xerox's push to invent the office of the future. 

Don Massaro: Now this was late seventies, early eighties. Nobody actually knew what the office of the future was like.

Jason Lopez: Xerox brought Don in to lead the effort to sell the Office of the Future. And one of his first steps was to go to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, to see what new ideas were cooking that could be turned into products. Even an unknown at the time, like Steve Jobs, was poking around PARC for ideas. 

Don Massaro: Everything you see today had its roots at Xerox at PARC. And this was the first what we call a metaphoric computer, which was the Altos that basically used the concept of icons and mice and the concept of pointing and clicking as opposed to using a keyboard to type in commands. 

Jason Lopez: It was technology so good it sold itself. Actually, no, that's not how it went. 

Don Massaro: But it was amazing in the eighties when we were out there selling this, that this was going to be the future. Nobody bought that. Very few people bought it. I mean, I can't tell you how many CEOs actually threw me out of their company when I told them that, you know, in the future, the CEO and all these vice presidents and all these managers, were going to have a display and a keyboard on their desktop, and there weren't going to be any secretaries around and they're going to be generating their own documents and so forth. And, you know, you look around today and it's hard to believe that there was a time where people weren't all tied together electronically. 

Jason Lopez: This tying together began with the rise of the Internet and further fueled by the cloud. The platform we have today helped to hold the world's economy together during the COVID lockdown, which pushed many companies to take a ten-year plan to update data centers and do it in a year. The promise of working on any device from anywhere got solidified further as systems to support remote workers were significantly updated. The global network is more robust than ever, ready for the expansion of AI, 5g, IOT… and VR and AR. During the lockdown, internet video services for meetings came into their own, and many have suggested that this is the office of the future. 

Don Massaro: We're basically conferencing. 

Jason Lopez: Massaro says, it's what we've been able to do since the 1970s, only today with the added twist of video. But he says, it's just a stepping stone. 

Don Massaro: My son works in augmented reality. That'll change everything. Virtual or augmented reality or whatever the next step is, is actually going to put us all back together, working in the office, except the office is virtual. 

Jason Lopez: VR and AR are obviously not here yet. Meaning, the experience of putting on goggles or glasses with a mind-blowing visual environment that looks and sounds real... that's coming. The question for this story is how will it affect the Office of the Future? 

Paul Noll: Yeah, it's a great question because it does tie back to, to a lot of the things that were being developed in those early days. This idea that we can now, or we will be able to soon interact with information, especially in context, in our surroundings... 

Jason Lopez: Just as someone in the middle ages had to think about how light and space affects monks writing in a scriptorium or in 1700s London on how administrative tasks were done for the East India company, Paul Noll does this for the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase. 

Paul Noll: So thinking about how information flows to us now through very limited views of our, our devices, our laptops, our mobile devices. When that information is no longer burdened by the black screen or the black rectangle, what does it become? Certainly, we would envision that it could lower our cognitive burden in dealing with so many different graphical user interfaces, but also what they were pointing out and which is still true today. And this is why there is traction in augmented reality by associating information with that physical world around us. And that's the promise. So when you think about what Steelcase does, we make physical surroundings, we make that environment, why would we not want to associate digital information with our physical surroundings? Of course we would. 

Jason Lopez: Noll is a great person to talk to about this because it's easy to come in imagining the office of the future as merely being a visually accurate environment, like a high-end video game. He dispels that perception and says it’s more than the visuals… it’s stepping into a world without screens, an office in which data comes to you when you need it without having to operate other devices. 

Paul Noll: There's certain things that just as a human, I think we know the, the flat screen that's the promise of augmented and virtual reality is to remove that border from our reality, we still want the information. It's still good information. We need to figure out a way to manage it better. Many more emails now. Well, do we need to look at them in the same user interface that we've had for 30 years? Probably not. You know, could they be timely? Could they be associated with a particular place in our physical environment? Certainly. There's huge opportunities to change how we interact with our information. 

Jason Lopez: Noll points to not only the AR and VR user experience, but a company’s processes, which include its digital and physical infrastructures as well as how employees feel doing these processes. However, it’s early in the game and little is known about what a serious AR/VR process would be. But there are data points helping to understand it, data points like the pandemic lockdown. 

Paul Noll: I tend to look at it from a couple of different lenses. One is how, how has the pandemic changed? How are companies responding to their employees' requests? And then of course, how is the work changing? We feel that companies now know more than ever, that they need to attend to their employees' requests, being more flexible about work environments, how and where I might choose to work might be different from you. And then on the user side, of course these new hybrid work scenarios where I might work from home or work from a third place or come into work. But I'm going to be working with other people that are remote and distributed as well. 

Jason Lopez: If you think about it for a moment… word processing. It’s far, far more than a fancier typewriter. In the same vein AR and VR is more than just video. As technologists have said, sure you’ll be able to have a business meeting on the beach in Bora Bora and feel like you’re actually there. Buty many of the ways we’ll work in a virtual office we don’t even know yet will be invented by users after the technology gets here.  

Don Massaro: I think when we look back, I mean, I won't be around, but I think people will look back at the way we're working remotely now and kind of think about it as the Model T Ford, you know, people actually did that, you know. 

Jason Lopez: Don Massaro is a retired Silicon Valley executive most known for founding and leading Shugart Associates, the company that brought us the five and a half inch floppy disc. Five and a half inches because it would fit in an IBM engineer's, white button down shirt pocket . Paul Noll is a senior researcher at Steelcase, who's been exploring how next generation technologies impact human beings. And Nicole Peterson is a professor of interior design at Iowa State University. Her latest project investigates Instagram and contemporary design. This is the Tech Barometer podcast. I'm Jason Lopez. Tech Barometer is a production of The Forecast. You can find more stories at www.theforecastbynutanix.com.

Jason Lopez is executive producer of Tech Barometer, the podcast outlet for The Forecast. He’s the founder of Connected Social Media. Previously, he was executive producer at PodTech and a reporter at NPR.

© 2021 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved.  For additional legal information, please go here.

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