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The Future of Work: Quantified Employees, Pop-Up Workplaces, And More Telepresence

Take a look at the ways we can make our offices friendlier, healthier, and more efficient.

For many people, especially those working at desk jobs, the workplace is very different than it was 20 years ago: there’s a computer at every desk, telecommuting is fairly common, and the traditional cubicle is giving way to more collaborative spaces. We’ve seen predictions about where we’ll go from here before; now PSFK, a popular blog that also happens to be a thriving consultancy, has come up with its own version of the future of work, described in a new 138-page report. It’s not as fantastical as many future-forward reports—it’s planted firmly in ideas that are already gaining a lot of traction. Perhaps that makes it more accurate. We’ll find out.

Here are our takeaways.

Startup Training and Skills Marketplaces

PSFK imagines that learning initiatives for young entrepreneurs, such as Enstitute, will become the norm. In this model, college students are matched up with startups, where they learn all the programs used by the company, take relevant Skillshare classes, and work on projects, and sit in on panels. Virtual learning libraries, where entrepreneurial experts can leave advice in written and video form, will also proliferate (we’re seeing hints of this now with the growing online education industry). At the same time, skills marketplaces—social tools that allow employers to quickly get a handle on applicants’ skills will become popular. Mozilla’s Open Badges project, for example, lets people display their skills via badges on social media profiles.

Office Feedback Culture

You know the employee that keeps screwing up and eventually just gets fired without really understanding why? He may not exist in the future. PSFK believes the future is a "feedback culture," where real-time online suggestion boxes for employees, "workplace sentiment readings," and feedback systems that block the identity of giver and receiver reign.

Enterprise social networking service Yammer recently introduced social sentiment readings to its platform, and we at Fast Company found them to be more than a little confusing. But the technology will undoubtedly improve in coming years. As creative agency Zemoga imagines in the report, perhaps one day employee sentiments will be captured with Foursquare-like mood check-ins.

Quantified Workers

Admit it: you secretly like watching your Klout score rise. Just a little a bit. How much will you like it when social prestige gets integrated into your work life? We’re already seeing hints of this happening, as PSFK points out. A video game company called Valve uses a peer ranking system to keep track of employee skill levels, contributions, and overall value. Salesforce’s Chatter tool seeks out influencers in corporate social networks. And SilkRoad, a social talent management organization, assigns numerical values to employee influence based on algorithms. The next steps, says PSFK, are "a system that is constantly collecting and visualizing employee performance," letting workers constantly rank each other on contributions and skills, generating metrics for worker engagement.

More Social Communication Tools

Social communication tools make telecommuting possible—without tools like Yammer, Instant Messenger, Dropbox, and Google Docs, I would have a much more difficult time pulling it off. In the future, PSFK believes that these tools will become even more sophisticated. Cross-organizational social tools like Shift will let workers collaborate across companies, while universal dashboards like Hojoki—a mobile app that tracks Evernote, Yammer, Dropbox, and a number of other applications—will become more popular. Virtual spaces for employees to collaborate will also pop up.

Visual collaboration tools will make it even easier to telecommute. Already, Industrial Color has rolled out a digital table app that works with Samsung’s Touch Table, and design software developer Sunglass has created a program akin to AutoCAD that engineers, designers, and architects can use online together.

Tim Weyrich, UCL

Telepresence Proliferates

In almost every report on the future of work, telepresence is a major theme. PSFK cites current advances in in-home high-definition video conferencing, haptic remote robots (these mirror a user’s body reactions on a robot located elsewhere), desk-lamp shaped projection devices, and telepresence robots as harbingers of what’s to come.

But after having spent a week trying to navigate a telepresence robot around the Fast Company office, I can comfortably say that this particular innovation has a long way to go before it’s truly useful for office workers (it may be more helpful in medicine, education, and retail, which PSFK points out as possible uses). As Paul Dickinson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project, explained to me at the time: "The big revolutions in tech—fax, email, web, mobile phones—achieved mass deployment with a simple, affordable unit that worked."

The Pop-Up, Healthy Workplace

PSFK’s vision of the future pop-up workplace—modular work pods, attractive sound-absorbing booths, mobile workstations that roll around, and "pink noise" systems that block out nearby conversations—isn’t so different than many of today’s tech company workspaces. The pink noise system, for example, is an innovation developed by Autodesk. A design firm called Live With Design runs with the theme in the report, imagining a mobile coworking space that exists inside existing coworking spaces for short periods of time.

But here’s a trend we’re only now beginning to see: a serious consideration of what the effects of long hours of sitting can do to the human body. PSFK points out innovations like Focal’s standing furniture, chair-based exercise systems like the OfficeGym, and treadmill workstations as examples of what we might find in the future healthy office.

PSFK’s full report is available here. Excerpts are also available.

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