What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

How will automation impact upon the design of our workplaces?  Is it really likely that our workplaces will cease to exist?

2016 became the year that automation of the workforce went mainstream, with the question “Will a Robot take my job?” becoming common across a wide swath of media and the internet, no longer the subject of only futurism and innovation blogs.  In fact, the changing nature of work, automation and the possible significant job losses associated with it are now considered one of the biggest challenges facing us globally in the next 10 years.  So how will this impact on the workplace and interior design?

For a seriously dystopian view, this video from the Guardian, paints a very different picture from the world we inhabit now – somewhat 1984 meets the Jetson’s – and like both of these, it’s probably a bit too far fetched to be real.  Whilst its true that many jobs or parts of jobs could be automated, the reality is that automation is likely to be slower to take over than we imagine, and that a world without work (and the workplace) isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.  There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that are less about technology than they are social, political and psychological.  We just don’t trust machines.  Our societies are not set up to function in a world of no work – we need to get paid to live.  Its likely that ‘busy work’ will continue for some time after many jobs could have been automated.  Already we see this in architecture, interior design and engineering.  We have students, but not the latest software.  Possibly no-one in the office even knows what the latest software can do, or maybe no-one has had time to learn it yet. Perhaps managers insist that it needs to be done the way it always was, the other way won’t work (or they are scared it will and that they will become irrelevant).  So still the students do the manual repetitive tasks that could already be done by software.  I imagine its the same to some extent in all industries – although construction is one of the worst (see my posts on disruptive innovation and the future of architecture).   Linked to the Guardian video is a great article about how we need to change society before we can get rid of work.  My belief then, is that the workplace will continue to exist for some time to come.

Perhaps it is more likely we will see more co-working spaces to provide both individual and corporate tenants flexibility to cater for the changing nature of work. We are already seeing the idea of the freelance ‘gig economy’ (although in Australia at least casual employment has apparently remained at a steady percentage since the nineties). The accompanying growth in co-working spaces caters for both these freelancers and smaller startups.  However it’s unlikely we will all become freelance entrepreneurs. But that’s not to say there won’t be more of us using co-working spaces.

While some predictions suggest that automation could take 30-50% of jobs, more likely scenario is that automation takes parts of jobs – many jobs are a mix of repetitive and non-repetitive cognitive tasks. My job as an interior designer still exists, but certain tasks won’t.  The choices will be to either have less staff or retain a similar numbers of staff but everyone becomes part time (and we all supplement our incomes selling stuff on Etsy…)  Possibly different organisations may make different choices – but with more and more staff sick of working long hours and wanting better work life balance (or perhaps time to make money online) the chances of a larger part time workforce would seem to be high.  Perhaps we won’t just work in one job or place but in several.  Either way we would see workplaces either shrinking or more people working out of co-working spaces part or all of the time.  To some extent, this would mean that current trends of activity based working with its more flexible approach to space per person and co-working will continue.

The very development of co-working spaces highlights the reason why the workplace will continue to exist. It’s social. From my own experience I’ve always found one of the biggest barriers to a remotely distributed team is the random connections and conversations, often referred to these days as the ‘bump’ factor (although they happen just as much sitting at a desk as at a corridor). Neil Usher sums it up really well in this blog “Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.”

Neil also talks about the change in the design of what we consider to be a workplace and the influence of other spheres of design. Our offices are already starting to merge into spaces less dominated by cubicles and computers, with more in common with residential or hospitality spaces. The co-working and activity based working models also bring to this the concept of office-as-a-service, with ideas of hotel style concierges, retail style IT genius bars and perhaps food and beverage options. I agree with Neil, that this trend will continue (although maybe the Genius Bar will be staffed by robots?), and this presents another challenge to those designing (and even more so paying) for the workplace – design trends in hospitality and retail change a lot faster than a traditional ten year commercial lease!

To me though, one of the most exciting trends in workplace design will be the ability to create simulations during the design stages and post occupancy evaluations in real time. The ability to test our designs and how people interact with them creates an opportunity for architects and designers never seen before. Particularly as the workplace becomes a consumer choice (as we can work from anywhere), the ability to create evidence based designs that we can prove are attracting people to use the workplace gives workplace designers so much more relevance than being seen as someone who pretties up the space. Not only that, we can start to generate evidence as to how workplace design contributes to productivity, teamwork, collaboration and wellbeing. I wrote an article on this use of simulations and data several years ago, and now the idea is starting to go mainstream – co-working space WeWork are starting to actually do it, and software giant Autodesk are predicting it to be one of the big industry changing trends.

None of this means that the workplace will look so different after all – except maybe a robot will deliver your coffee. Trends in design and furniture will continue to come and go. Wellbeing, biophilla and plants might still be important design criteria – maybe you might kneel instead of standing or sitting – but probably you will still go to work in an office that has some kind of work surface (I’m hoping for the giant tablet bringing a return to the drawing board), coffee (maybe your coffee robot is not just bringing it, but also the barista) and at least some co-workers.  Maybe some of you would rather Alice’s world…

Ceilidh Higgins

Ps. In my own future of work, next week I am looking forwards to joining the team at Futurespace!

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One Response to What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

  1. Pingback: What's so critical - why the long hours?

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