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Is the Office of the Future Robotic?

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I recently picked up an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset. I was curious whether it could function as an augmentation or replacement for my physical workplace, and was also looking for an excuse to spend a little time playing around with VR gaming. But when I got the headset, I quickly realized that my living room doesn’t have enough space to get the full VR experience. Take two or three steps in any direction and I’d be running into the couch, or the table, or a shelf. 

What did this lead to? A two hour cleaning session in the next room, as I rearranged and cleared space in what should have been my workout room to make space for my new VR setup. And it worked well, for a bit. But quickly the VR experience got taxing, and I needed to return to my desk, leaving me with the irony of having physically rearranged my space to make room for a device that was originally meant only to augment and enhance my existing workspace.

In so many ways, this is the plight of the modern office workspace. The best office was once thought to be full of benches full of number crunchers and typists, then things changed to favor the cubicle, requiring costly build-outs across the country. At the end of the twentieth century, the cubicle fell out of favor to the new open-plan office, requiring yet another interior redesign. Today, as the open office faces widespread condemnation, and the coronavirus throws into jeopardy the future of any shared spaces, yet another expensive wave of build-outs may be on the horizon. 

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we accepted, for a second, that the winds of design will cast the ideal office from shore to shore, as management practices, user preferences and the very nature of work all change? What if we supposed that even within the span of one day, people need different types of spaces to reach their optimum productivity, since knowledge economy workers can be expected to execute both focus tasks and collaborative tasks on a regular basis? 

If we accept that those pretenses make sense, there are two ways to address the challenge. On the one hand, we can invest in activity-based, flexible workplaces. But even those types of responsive, adaptable, user-friendly workspaces have their shortcomings. They still prescribe uses: This space is for this task; that space is for that task. Once set up, each space offers little real deviation from the usage mode originally envisioned for it. A collaborative workspace would take a major retrofit to become a focus-oriented workspace, and a conference room would always best serve a large group of people. This is particularly concerning in light of the data coming from workplace surveys. Capital One’s 2019 Work Environment Survey found, for instance, that 65 percent of respondents report higher levels of productivity when they can change their physical location amidst their work. 

So what if there is another option? One that, like the original promise of the VR headset, molds our space to our needs, in real time? This is indeed an alternative that is already on the table, and it comes by way of movable office furniture couple with advanced spatial reservation tools. As we discussed in our newest report, there are tools out there right now that can allow users to reserve time in the rooms they need, for the tasks they need, on demand. In the future, fully automated movable furniture could dovetail with this technology for even greater productivity. Robotic furniture is still more common on the residential side, where players like Ori utilize moving wall units to articulate beds or open space in and out of the wall, and Bumblebee promises to retract beds up to a hidden compartment in the ceiling, opening up much more usable space per bedroom. There are possibilities within offices too, even if they aren’t quite as exciting. Vari’s Quickflex Walls are freestanding glass-heavy partitions that can be easily reconfigured allowing for different uses from time to time. 

In the future, perhaps this kind of furniture will be the centerpiece of our offices and not an add-on or customization for the most cutting edge of workspaces. An office completely equipped with modular, movable furniture and walls would be able not only to reactively address the needs of its occupants, but through the use of occupant data analysis, would proactively offer the most efficient spaces before workers even hit their desks in the morning. Such an office could orient itself around group meeting spaces and conference rooms when it detects a high volume of shared space reservations, or dedicate more floor space to focus areas like cubicles when conference room reservations are low. 

There is no time like the present for office managers and designers to start moving towards this type of workplace. According to the Capital One survey, almost three out of four employees said they consider it important that their offices are flexible, and nowadays pressure seems to be coming from all sides. Offices aren’t going to completely disappear due to COVID-19, but more workers will definitely be working from home. This means that existing trends like going paper-free and favoring laptops will only accelerate. These mobility-friendly adaptations will make it easier for offices to completely reorient themselves even on a day to day basis, since they mean less file cabinets, desktop PC towers, and cables to contend with. Perhaps eventually, even desks and chairs will have small wheels and AI control, allowing the office on Tuesday morning to look nothing like the one employees left on Monday evening, all without a single human’s direct involvement. 

This is certainly science fiction for now, but the last few months have demonstrated that the status quo for offices is not good enough any more. The productivity losses, costs, and direct health risks of static, poorly-designed offices are serious, but they are far from insurmountable. We may not even have to resort to VR landscapes to solve them. 

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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