In the fall of 2017, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Business. Open offices everywhere immediately let out a long sigh: Do we really need more talking in the office?
The promise of voice-computing systems in the office may be enticing, but office disruptions are already plentiful. There’s the over-the-shoulder art direction, when your manager hovers around your desk and offers unsolicited feedback, essentially using you as a mouse. Or there’s the headphone prison, a self-imposed exile most people enter into in an attempt to signal they need to get some work done.
There is a clear friction between technology and how offices are currently designed. So considering all the technologies that are on the verge of changing the way we work, what will the office of the future look like?
A brief history of office design
Offices themselves often reflect society’s current view of productivity. The cubicle was introduced by Herman Miller in the 1960s to give workers an escape from the din of the typing pool. They also served as mini conference rooms: When there wasn’t email, walk-up meetings were more common and needed to be housed in miniature offices. Cubicles also gave space for all the equipment needed to do your job, which until recently included bulky typewriters and large desktop computers.
Computerization began to change the office. When laptops proliferated in the late 1990s, we replaced cube farms with open offices to bring more light and expansiveness into the workplace. As many tasks that used to require face-to-face contact were eradicated by email and chat interfaces, this layout also encouraged the continuation of collaboration between colleagues (and more colleagues per square foot). But even though collaboration has taken on greater importance in the modern office, we still work on personal computers, which are inherently, well, personal. Collaboration therefore often takes place over the shoulder—and often at the sacrifice of the focus of the person whose shoulder is being looked over.
Will voice computing solve the war between collaboration and personal space—or will it send us into all-out anarchy, every Alexa for herself? If cubicles couldn’t survive the way laptops reshaped the office, how will the open office survive voice computing? Will they solve the modern office’s war between collaboration and personal space—or will they send us into all-out anarchy, every Alexa for herself?
Offices will change to suit the new modes and technologies of our time. With that in mind, we looked around the open office here at argodesign and created a vision for the workplace of the future.
Polite, discreet voice computing
The form of the object you speak to is an important prompt for using voice computing properly. Shouting at a cylinder in the middle of the room can work fine at home, but the etiquette of the office demands a better object.
Penelope takes the shape of an existing standard of office communication and productivity: the pen. (Hence, Penelope.) The pen is an elegant object that is ideal to use as a professional interface for polite, discreet voice computing. A built-in near-field microphone allows employees to ask questions, engage skills, or issue commands in a discrete way. Penelope can reply asymmetrically through Bluetooth-enabled headphones or a similarly discrete speaker—or Penelope doesn’t have to use words at all. Instead, a quick blink of an LED light can indicate success at booking you an Uber, and your confirmation is sent to your phone or laptop where your experience continues seamlessly.
Penelope also creates an important visual cue for co-workers: If someone is holding the pen at their mouth like a microphone, it clearly signals they are directing their request to Penelope, not you. (Apologies in advance to any Pennys in the workplace.)
Interactive light, anywhere
There’s an irony in having open offices filled with personal-computing devices: You have a space designed to encourage collaboration, but it’s filled with people who are heads-down, immersed in laptops. We may as well all have blinders on.
Gleam uses interactive light to create a second cooperative model for better digital collaboration. Using laser projection paired with computer vision and voice recognition, Gleam can direct light onto any horizontal or vertical surface, and the image will always be sharp and in focus. This turns any wall or desk into a second shared display that allows for more than just presenting content: You can work directly onto the surface.
The device is battery-powered and portable, or it can be attached as a fixture in a room. Depth sensors in the laser field create computer vision, and several microphones arranged into an array allow the kind of beam that Alexa or Kinect uses to hear you from across the room. This collection of multiple inputs creates a co-operative interface where two people can work on the same material at the same time in the same interface (elegantly, like Judy Dench in James Bond: Quantum of Solace, not the mime-like hand waving of Tom Cruise in Minority Report.)
Physical objects become a functional part of the interface. Normally “dumb” objects like tables can now take on the intelligence of computing. This participation adds functionality and creates a more intuitive & configurable interface. We call these objects smart dumb things, and Gleam would allow them to become part of the office.
THE COLLABORATION ROOM:
A place for co-operative computing
When looking to collaborate, we often end up in a conference room. While it offers us a place where a group can speak to each other without disrupting the rest of the office, it’s not ideal.
The modern conference room is designed for presentation and negotiation, not collaboration. Like King Arthur’s fabled court, we sit around a table in the center of the room where we have equal access to eye contact and non-verbal cues. We are physically positioned in order to negotiate and quite literally “meet in the middle.” While this can be great for job interviews and salary reviews, the penalty is that any document or artifact that one person is looking at is upside down to the other half of the room. As a make-do solution, we tend to slap a projector on one side that everyone can swivel to as a read-only information display (which always takes far longer to hook up than anyone plans for).
In order to collaborate more effectively, we need less knights of the round table and more knights of the work table: collaboration rooms, not conference rooms. If you had a cooperative computing system like Gleam, it helps to be on the same side and equal distance from the interface so that everyone in the room can reach in and participate. To make room for the group, Gleam-enabled tables sit against the wall rather than in the center of the room. A Gleam-based interface projected horizontally serves as the cooperative interface while a vertical surface can present the coordinated result or serve to pin general information. collaborators are facing the same direction and can “move forward” on their project together.
The lobby as a transportation hub
Lobbies in large office buildings are a combination of reception and security. You sign in and wait for your escort in order to actually begin your office experience. This setup worked fine when transit ended or began in the parking garage or curb—but those days have met a red light.
When done with meetings, we used to walk straight out to the street to hail a cab. But with the advent of ride sharing, saying goodbye to clients in office-building lobbies can be an awkward affair. Your phone in your hand, you say goodbye but cannot yet depart, leaving the host wondering if they should continue the banal chit-chat or leave you stranded until your Uber arrives. While your meeting buddy talks about the weather, you stare distractedly at your phone’s map to see how far away your car is—often with three different news networks on three different TVs blaring away.
No matter what you do, lingering in office lobbies is never a great experience, and autonomous vehicles, for all their promises, also promise to make this the new standard awkward procedure.
What if we turned this thumb-twiddling wait into an interactive experience, transforming that part of the building into a transportation hub? That’s Dispatch: a lobby designed to facilitate arrivals and departures. Train-station-like boards track ride share services and public transport so that everyone knows where their lifts are and how long they have until they need to say their final farewells. Instead, you can say adieu to waiting in the rain on the corner just to avoid the socially anxious double goodbye.
The cubicle in the cloud
The true distractions of the open office aren’t necessarily noise-related: They’re interruptions from co-workers and managers asking if you’re finished with your current project or if you can make the next meeting. Wearing headphones and burying yourself in your monitor should be enough of a cue to “do not disturb,” but in an open office, if you’re not answering your Slack then someone will inevitably walk up to your desk and stand just on your periphery until you stop what you’re doing. This is actually a time when the old-fashioned cubicle had an upside; at least you could pin a “Not Available” sign to one of your gray fabric walls.
In the future, this problem will be solved by Solo, a desk that raises into a private cubicle near the ceiling, literally isolating the employee. It’s a desk on the shop floor for collaboration—and truly in the cloud for focus. You’d be hard pressed to discover a bolder statement that you aren’t available than being suspended eight feet off the ground.
When you’ve ascended into your quiet heaven, Solo leaves behind an artificially intelligent digital assistant. This digital version of yourself—a Solo.Me—monitors your work-in-progress and calendar and learns your preferences and pace. This avatar can then answer scheduling questions on your behalf without having to disturb you. Co-workers can even come by and chat about rose ceremonies or first downs while you work uninterrupted. In this way, Solo allows the creation of a best-of-all-worlds office where focus, collaboration, and socialization are more fluid.