Piers Linney: Despite tech surge and scaremongering, the office still has life in it

The modern office has come a long way since Britain’s first purpose-built office building, the Old Admiralty, opened in the 18th century. Originally designed to make the managing of large-scale administrative tasks more efficient, it rapidly became a fixture of working life for many.

But with the advent of an ever-increasing portfolio of technology, flexible working and innovative business practices, the future of the office in its current guise has been called into question. While clear that these changes reduce the importance of the office, there is still a long way to go before we can safely say it is obsolete.

Working away from the office is much easier now than ever before: employees have a multitude of network-ready devices at their disposal in the home and on the move, with cloud computing making work, in theory, accessible from anywhere.

Many champion the idea of completing the day’s tasks from the comfort of their own home, citing such advantages as increased productivity, reduced commuting costs and a better work-life balance.

With flexible working conditions also more pervasive than in previous years, it’s hard to dispute that the office isn’t as crucial to the smooth running of a business as it used to be. After all, work is something you do and not somewhere you go: as long as productivity is maintained, where the work gets done is of lesser significance.

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However, it’s important to adopt a sense of perspective when discussing the future of the office. Despite the introduction of the Flexible Working Directive in the UK last year, this has not yet sparked a revolution for home working.

Research conducted by Microsoft revealed that 55 per cent of British workers surveyed stated that they were still required to work from the office within designated working hours, with 44 per cent saying it was not possible to work remotely under any circumstances.

On this evidence, it seems that, whether due to a lack of preparation or a lack of desire from senior leaders, companies are far from ready to fully forsake the office.

The presence of online products such as Microsoft’s Office 365 suite and Skype for Business has made accessing work documents, resources and meetings from anywhere a reality for many businesses, which has gone a long way towards increasing flexible working and improving collaboration through cloud computing.

These technologies have also reduced the need for expensive office space, meaning employers save money and don’t necessarily need a seat for every member of staff any more. This doesn’t point to an end for the office, however: these developments serve to complement and enhance the office environment, rather than replace it.

From a purely practical point of view, it’s extremely difficult to see the office disappearing entirely. However small, a company needs a physical base of some kind, where employees can meet face-to-face and meetings with clients can be held.

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Despite the regular scaremongering about technology reducing the desire for direct human interaction, face-to-face contact is a core aspect of human nature and isn’t something that’s going to disappear.

Let’s consider technology and flexibility as ways of complementing and adding a new dimension to the existing office environment, rather than something that is going to usurp it entirely.

While the office may not be the same central focus of working life as it used to be, it would be premature to sound its death knell. 

Technology continues to make working beyond the office both possible for workers and desirable for employers, but companies are a long way away from moving the entirety of their business into the virtual world. If there truly is going to be an end to the office, then this is still only the beginning of the process.

Piers Linney is the co-CEO of cloud services firm Outsourcery and a former investor on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den.

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