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Office Products International Magazine contacted me for an article about the future of the workplace, for their 25 anniversary issue.

Obviously this is an industry that has a keen interest in the issue — after all, if your target market is the office, and that office is changing, you need to know! Here’s what I wrote!

What’s the future of the office workplace? People love trying to figure out that question. Futurist Jim Carroll is one of them…

When trying to imagine the workplace of the future, a good start is to look back at the cartoon show The Jetsons, which was first aired in the US in 1962 and purported to show what the world would look like in 2062 – 100 years on.

Watch The Jetsons today and it would seem most of its predictions have actually come true: autonomous, self-driving cars (although their vehicles could fly); video calling apps such as Skype or FaceTime (George Jetson used to communicate with his boss at Spacely Sprockets like this). He also views his news and other information on a flat screen TV – let’s say, using a version of our internet. In addition, Rosie the robot maid scurries about doing all kinds of things for the people that are a part of her ‘life’.


Taking note of science fiction, back-to-the-future scenarios, and even cartoons such as The Jetsons can provide glimpses into what the workplace might look like in the coming decades.

But let’s think in more practical terms, by aligning the office of the future to the careers and workforce that will be our reality.

In 1997, I coined the phrase ‘nomadic workers’ while writing Surviving the Information Age, and made the following predictions:

  • The number of full-time jobs will begin to dramatically shrink. Yet, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in the change of the relationship between employer and employee as the nomadic worker becomes the dominant form of corporate resource.
  • Companies will hire the best talent, regardless of where that person might be. A new form of career competitiveness will emerge with extreme rivalry for this group of nomadic workers – highly skilled individuals who call the shots.
  • Where people work from won’t matter – a trend that has implications for the future of both rural and urban economies.
  • Lifestyle choice will come to dominate career decisions. Nomadic workers have different attitudes towards life and work, and reject many of the currently accepted ‘norms’ of the corporate environment. Their attitudes will revolutionise the world of work.
  • Office walls won’t determine the shape of tomorrow’s company – the reach of its computerised knowledge network, and its ability to tap into the skills and capabilities of nomadic workers, wherever they might be, will define it.

I was pretty much bang on with those trends – certainly much of it has already become true. More people work from home than ever before (in my case, I’ve had a home office for 25 years; my kids grew up in a world in which their parents have always worked at home).

A global war for the best talent means that there is an entire economy of highly-skilled nomadic workers. And in my own case, I joke that I work really hard to not have to go and get a job – instead, I hire out my future-forecasting skills to organisations worldwide.

Those trends will continue to play out in the future. But what else will happen? In my view, there are three key trends that will define the future of the office and the workplace: the rapid emergence of new careers, the continued rapid evolution of technology, and the impact of the next generation.

1. Future vocations

First, consider what is happening with skills, jobs and careers. Last year, I was the opening keynote speaker for the global WorldSkills challenge in São Paolo, Brazil, and spoke about the fact that we are now witnessing the rapid emergence of all kinds of new careers.

I’m talking about vocations such as robotic pharmaceutical therapy monitors, water footprint analysts, vertical farming infrastructure managers, drone helicopter insurance crop risk managers, and – not forgetting – manure managers!

The key point here is that many of these new careers involve the processing of information which can be done from anywhere. An insurance risk manager that relies on drone technology doesn’t have to be on location, they can simply do their work from wherever they are.

The result of this is an even greater dispersion of highly skilled jobs around the world.

Organisations in the future will continue to hollow out, hiring skills and talent on an as-needed, short-term contract rather than permanent basis. Centralised offices will become smaller, with a core group focused on strategic goals that simply link to needed talent as and when required.

2. Connecting the workplace

The second trend is the Internet of Things (IoT) which will provide some of the most fascinating changes in the workplace and office of the future. What is it really all about? Simply put, every device that is a part of our daily lives is going to become connected and we will be aware of its status and its location.

I often joke on stage that this could get a bit out of hand: I might get on my weighing scales one day, and it will send an email to my fridge, blocking access for the day because I’m not living up to the terms of my wellness contract.

The IoT will lead to some of the The Jetsons-type forecasts of the past. It’s quite likely that self-driving cars will result in mobile offices on wheels – the car does the navigation, so we’ll have more time to get some work done on the way to the office.

Massive hyperconnectivity will keep employees aware of where fellow workers are, when office supplies are running low, or will link them to a specific location on a manufacturing assembly line that requires instant maintenance.

We will live and work in a world that is hyper-aware of the status of everything around us and that will lead to some fascinating workplace changes that I don’t think we can even yet comprehend.

3. The virtual workforce

It is perhaps the third trend that will have the most profound impact. Consider this fact: 10-15 years from now, most baby boomers will have retired or will be set to soon retire. This technology-adverse generation grew up with mainframes, COBOL and MS-DOS, and as a result, never really adapted to a workplace of videoconferencing, video whiteboards and other methods of collaboration.

Conversely, my sons, aged 21 and 23, grew up with the Xbox and PlayStation, Skype and text messages. This generation will soon take over the workforce, and most certainly take advantage of every opportunity to continue to virtualise the world of work. They will use Google Glass-type devices to embed live video into their everyday work routine. Virtual reality will become common enabling them to live and work in a world of massive augmented reality. They will be able to teleport their minds to far-flung locations where their virtual avatar will participate, interact and collaborate with others.

They are going to live in a world of technology acceleration unlike anything we have known, and rather than battling it as older generations have so often done, they will embrace it with open arms and open minds.

Does this all mean that the traditional office of today – a meeting place where individuals gather to share efforts on projects, ideas and opportunities – will disappear? I don’t think so. I believe that we are social creatures, and we crave opportunities for interaction. It will just be a very different form of interaction.

Brace yourself. The future will be here faster than you think.

Jim Carroll is one of the world’s leading futurists, trends and innovation experts, with a client list that includes NASA, The Walt Disney Company, Johnson & Johnson and the Swiss Innovation Forum. Follow him on Twitter @jimcarroll or visit www.jimcarroll.com

This is a long post.

Way back in 1997, I wrote a book called “Surviving the Information Age.” It’s now out of print, but a few copies are still at Amazon.

The book took a long look at the trends that would impact our future. I dug it out again today when CNN ran an article, “Say goodbye to full time jobs without benefits“, decrying the fact that with the recession coming to an end, we were seeing more jobs that were contract oriented rather than full time. Reading the article, it seems they see this as a shocking new trend.

D’uh! What planet are these people on. Countless people have been talking and writing about the significant structural change occurring in hiring practices. I’ve been speaking about it since 1987 when the New York Times wrote an editorial entitled “Tomorrow’s company won’t have walls.”

So in the spirit of going back in time, I offer up an extract from my Surviving the Information Age book, in which I wrote at length about the trend.

I think I’ll re-release the book as an e-Book. It’s uncanny how right it was.

Chapter 5 : From Surviving the Information Age, Jim Carroll, 1997

The world of business is going to be changed by computer technology, not only as a result of the interlinking of business computer systems – but through the emergence of brand new forms of corporate organization that are fuelled by the connections that computers permit between companies and people.

My own career experiences are similar to what many people went through with the recession and business upheaval of the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of people found themselves in circumstances that forced them to re-examine their lives and make some decisions with regard to their careers. Some responded marvelously and others did not.

In my case, I’ve discovered a new flexibility in my attitude towards work: I find that my attitude now is that I have to continually change myself and skills in order to keep one step ahead in the game. Since I don’t have a job, I have to constantly invent one – and make myself available as a temporary worker to any business on the planet.

* * * *

By understanding in general terms what is going to happen in the future in terms of new forms of business organization, you can prepare yourself to maintain your career — and hence your income — through a period of unprecedented change.

One of the most significant changes that is occurring is that the emergence of the wired world will result in a significant change in the relationship between a business organization and its employees.

In the good old days, there was a simple rule that the world of business operated by: people lived close to the place where they worked. Having a job meant that you got up every morning, went to work, put in your seven or eight hours and went back home.

With the wired world, of course, this is no longer true: the matter of location is quickly becoming irrelevant. With the explosion of telecommunication networks, fax machines, voice mail, e-mail and other methods of communication, the fact is that the work that people do is increasingly becoming accessible to the world of business from anywhere. You can expect this trend to continue. For all the hype and hyperbole, business is truly going global and will come to rely on the skills of people wherever they might be on the planet.

* * * *

Back in June of 1989, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Tomorrow’s Company Won’t Have Walls.” The author did a wonderful job of putting into perspective the fact that traditional forms of business were coming to an end, primarily because of the expansion of global communication capabilities. The author foresaw that the world was already becoming one in which companies were more likely to hire expertise on a part-time, as-needed basis.

His prediction? In the future, because of increasing complexity in the business world, companies would find that they would need a lot of specialized expertise. And with ever-increasing sophistication in communication capabilities, they would find that they would be able to obtain this expertise not by hiring more employees, but by accessing that expertise from contract workers or consultants who happened to make their skills available through sophisticated telecommunications technologies wherever they might be.

Two years after I read that article, which caused me to begin to think about what was happening around me with the recession of 1990–1991, Fortune magazine ran a cover story called “The End of the Job.” The article predicted that we were entering an economy in which “jobs” are disappearing and in which people would make themselves available to companies for short-term assignments.

And by 1996, The End of Work, a book that focuses on the dramatic change occurring in our economy, rocketed to the top of the international best-seller lists. One of the key premises of the book? The economy of the temporary workforce is upon us.

In his book Job Shift, William Bridges (1994) coined the phrase “dejobbing” to describe this trend to non-standard employment. He says that workers are going to be more like independent business people (or one-person businesses) than conventional employees. They are likely to work for more than one client at a time and to move back and forth across organizational boundaries — being employed full-time for a period of time, then hired to do contract work, then hired to consult, and then brought back in-house (perhaps part-time this time) on a long-term assignment. He concludes that, although there will always be enormous amounts of work to do in our economy, the work will not be contained in that old familiar employment form of standard full-time, full-year jobs.

All these articles and books centre on two themes: the ever-increasing reliance on the temporary “workforce for hire” and a reduction in the duplication of skills throughout an organization.

Over time, companies will become leaner and meaner than they are today. They will be built around a small, core group of staff responsible for keeping the business running and will obtain the rest of their needed expertise through an ongoing and ever-growing reliance on contract workers. And specialized expertise need not be duplicated. In the old days, companies may have had a human resource expert for every division and every office location. Today, they can rely on one expert, or perhaps two or three, and make that talent available to the rest of the organization through e-mail and other methods.

These changes are real and aren’t science fiction. Take a look around your world, and I’m sure you can see the signs that it is beginning to happen. Fortune 500 organizations continue to shed staff at alarming rates, as the era of downsizing and rationalization continues unabated. You’ve either been directly affected or will be in the future.

* * * *

If you think about it, the wired world is the grease that is fueling this new type of corporate organization. The reason? With the explosion of communication capabilities, organizations can go out and access the expertise and talent of any number of people around the planet. Why hire staff when you can hire a temp? If you spend a bit of time thinking about the implications of this change, you will see that through the next decade some rather remarkable changes are in store.

  • The Number of Full-time Jobs Will Begin to Shrink Dramatically

The era of the job for life has clearly come to an end, and the concept of the job is becoming irrelevant as well. A new way of thinking is emerging in the corporate world, built upon a reluctance to increase staff levels, with the result that we are becoming an economy of consultants who sell their skills and talents to business on an as-needed basis.

It used to be that companies entered into an employer–employee relationship in order to obtain access to some type of specialized skill or knowledge. If the company needed a new marketing specialist, it went out and hired a marketing specialist. Then came the recession of the early 1990s. With the onslaught of restructuring that occurred, companies came to appreciate that it cost a heck of a lot of money to fire people, since severance packages had become quite expensive.

A new way of thinking began to occur in the corporate world, built on this logic: if we hire staff, we might have to fire them some day, particularly if we have another recession. It costs a lot of money to fire people. So why not hire people, not as staff, but on contract or as temporary workers? The role of the wired world? Guess what. A lot of those contract and temporary workers are found on the end of a telecommunications line.

  • Companies Will Hire the Best Talent They Can, Regardless of Where That Person Might Be

In the wired world, the only thing that counts is knowledge. If the knowledge is accessible from anywhere in the world, then companies will find themselves in the position of being able to choose the best talent and expertise they need to do a particular job from a group of global, skilled consultants.

The impact? A new era of career competitiveness is about to unfold as a number of highly skilled workers sell their capabilities and talents to a global audience of business organizations. The result? Marginal performance is no longer going to be good enough: in the new dog-eat-dog world of networked business, the old rule that those with the best skills and capabilities will be in the greatest demand will be even more true than it is today.

  • Lifestyle Choice Will Come to Dominate Career Decisions

Because they can supply their skills from anywhere through the tools of the wired world, this elite group of individuals will call the shots. They will make lifestyle decisions that will let them service their national and global client base from a rural electronic cottage, thus enjoying the fruits of the wired economy, at the same time watching their children grow up. A new era of career decisions based upon lifestyle choices is upon us. As we enter an economy in which location doesn’t matter, the natural result is that more people will choose to work from the places they want to, rather than where they have to.

  • Our Actual Work Location Won’t Matter

You can enhance your future career and job opportunities by adapting your skills so that they are marketable and accessible via the wired world. That simple rule, people lived close to the place where they worked, that I mentioned earlier is clearly and unequivocally changing as a result of the wired world, since you don’t need to be near your job in order to do the work!

On the other hand, we might consider that the rule hasn’t changed: people who have mastered the technology that lets them provide their skills to others, wherever they might be, live close to the place where they work — online!

The matter of location is quickly becoming irrelevant, with the explosion of telecommunication networks, fax machines, voice mail, e-mail and other methods of communication. The office of the future will look like your bedroom — because it will be.

As companies begin to rely more and more on outside expertise, the number of core employees required will continue to decrease. The impact on downtown urban areas will be dramatic. There will be fewer people working in office towers. The real estate industry has a phrase for this: “see through buildings.” That’s because they will be.

Guess what — the work force of the twenty-first century wears sweatpants, not suits, since they shop at WalMart, not Hugo Boss, for their day-to-day work attire. And while downtown real estate will suffer, the home improvements industry will expand, as people build a more comfortable home office environment.

If you really want to know what is happening in the world around us, talk to your letter carrier. She will tell you that her pack is getting heavier, year after year, because of the number of people working at home. Visit a local photocopy or office supply store at 10 in the morning, and you’ll find a variety of semi-scruffy professionals loading up on supplies or getting some copies made.

Today, 41% of Canadians have home computers, according to Statistics Canada. Not all of them are used solely for games and homework; an increasing number sit in the home office, tools with which the new home-based workforce is meeting the challenge of the changing business world.

You can ensure you are a survivor by understanding what it takes to build, manage and work in a home office and by getting into the wired state of mind.

  • A Generational Battle For Economic Control and Survival Is Upon Us

It won’t be easy. Our economic systems are increasingly characterized by baby boomers and the older generation, comfortable in their unchanging ways and who are now faced with a new, wired and technically sophisticated Generation-X. Increasingly, economic survival is dependent upon mastery of technology, and it should be obvious who has the upper hand in this game!

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