It’s easy to underestimate the emancipating power of technology.
It’s easy to underestimate the emancipating power of technology.
From the washing machine and vacuum cleaner to the Saturn V rocket, scientists have come up with ideas that have revolutionised daily lives and pushed the boundaries of the human imagination.
The hope over the next few years is that technology will free people up from being shackled to their desks. A report by office services company Regus on future workplace models found that 28 per cent of the 1,130 respondents were planning to grant employees greater freedom over when and where they work. Moreover, 40 per cent are changing their workplace models to become more collaborative.
Overly precise predictions about the future are uniquely prone to failure. Think of Alex Lewyt’s nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners or marketing men in the 1960s boasting that computers would create the paperless office. Of course, innovation isn’t always necessarily for the good, and the fear remains that the latest gadgets and bits of electronic wizardry won’t create freedom for the majority of people – employees will simply have to work longer and harder as the lines are blurred between office hours and free time. Here is our take on how technology will shake up the workplace of tomorrow.
Head into the cloud
Whether it’s software-as-a-service, the cloud or plain old hosted IT services, the internet remains the new frontier of business change. Robert Epstein, head of small business sales and marketing at Microsoft, says we are on the cusp of an IT revolution. ‘The cloud is a massive opportunity for growing businesses, as it means they can take on the same competitive technology as larger companies, but without having to lay down huge amounts of investment.’
Epstein says that the cloud encompasses all the benefits of the latest software solutions. ‘The cloud constitutes a whole new way of employing and acquiring IT, shifting expenditure from capex to opex costs. Businesses are using it to install things like customer relationship management systems, which can add a huge value to the business and are something that would normally represent a significant upfront cost.’
Peter Czapp, director of accountancy firm The Wow Company, says that in just three years collaboration technology has transformed the business. ‘Back then, each laptop had duplicate information on it. There was no single up-to-date version of anything and no-one could access anyone else’s information. It would have been impossible to grow efficiently without the technology we implemented.’
Now, if a client calls with a query, Czapp says that anyone in the company can access their entire history: ‘Our turnover has increased because we can offer a better service. It’s been a key element in our fast growth.’
Impervious to catastrophe
After suffering a burglary, Mark Houlding, founder of PR company Rostrum Communications, was grateful he had in place an effective business continuity plan. ‘My work laptop was stolen from home, but because everything was saved though our online backup service, the next morning I was in the physical office using the spare laptop as if nothing had happened.’
Czapp agrees that having backup systems in place offers vital protection against unforeseen circumstances. ‘Through our backup systems, all our employees can work from home, which meant that when the snow hit earlier this year, we could afford to be relaxed about it,’ he says.
No need to clock in
Easily available internet access and speedier connections mean that it’s easier than it ever has been to work away from the office. Microsoft’s Epstein believes that one of the biggest impacts technology is having on business is the flexibility it gives to working. ‘With laptops and smart phones, most people can now work from anywhere. The downside is that work life may start intruding on home life. But for me, it now means I can go to all my kids’ plays and fit work around them,’ he says.
Star Trek-style communicators may still be some way off for businesses, but being tied to a landline is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Due to cheaper and faster broadband availability, businesses are migrating from traditional telephone systems to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) as a way to reduce monthly phone costs, says Adam Collins at BT. ‘IP telephony and “unified communications” services are starting to be adopted by more small businesses as the price comes down,’ he says. For Jasper Westaway, founder of software start-up Onedrum, VoIP is an essential tool for communicating with his employees, as all staff are based at home. ‘I need to talk to colleagues regularly, so everyone is connected to Skype. I leave the phone line open the whole time and if I need to ask someone a question, I just shout out,’ says Westaway.
Wendy Shand, founder of child holiday accommodation advice site Tots to Travel, runs her business from home, managing agents across Europe through the medium of web-conferencing. ‘The way things are going, we’re going to see a greater dependence on video streaming through websites and better relationships [with customers through] video and internet telephony,’ she says, adding that it saves on costs too. ‘If it wasn’t for technology, the company wouldn’t exist. We’d need to have people physically working here in our office, and that’s a very expensive cost.’
Minimal office space
For Czapp, the major advantage of technology is the cost savings, such as using the cloud to store data: ‘Without it, we would have needed more of everything to deliver a worse service. There’s no question it has saved us a lot of money. It has made us a lot more efficient as the team spends less time rummaging around for things and we haven’t had to move to larger offices to store everything – which would have cost thousands.’
The future is now
Developments already happening in technology will be common features in future businesses. BT’s Collins observes: ‘When you look back 40 years ago, email was in its very early stages. Likewise, emerging technologies in place today will become widely available in the following decades.’ For Collins, this includes advances such as 3D printing – a process that allows you to physically print out resin objects. Already used in industrial design and architecture as a way to create prototypes, Collins says, ‘This is something we’ll see more companies using in the future.’
As the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson put it, ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.’