Jun 192012

Although collaboration is a behavior, it can often be enabled by various technologies. But it’s not just collaboration technologies that will define the workplace of the future. This Cutter Edge outlines seven other technologies that will be just as important in shaping the future workspace.

1. Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology delivers the ability to build something one atom at a time. This has big implications for supply chains, as transportation is not required when you can just grow a desk or chair out of a sheet of plastic or metal on the floor of the office. You can configure and reconfigure your office to support a face-to-face meeting (maybe by growing your conference table a bit larger), or you can set your office up to be a telepresence room if required. Although all physical workspaces are not created equal, nanotechnologies offer a way to make any office “your office” (you would program the room just as you program your preferences into a car today). Nanotechnology will enable you to grow your office just the way you like it. The limit is your imagination. If you can conceive of it, you can create it.

2. Heads-Up Displays

These displays are not so much like what you see in a fighter jet, but are more like those you see in the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) or in science fiction movies. In fact, FedEx CIO Rob Carter thinks the best training for the future workplace is WoW. He says the game “takes exactly the same skill set people will need more of in the future to collaborate on work projects. The kids are already doing it.”

The gaming world is years ahead of the enterprise in UI design and display of large data sets. Some additional research on WoW also shows that players in this game learn good team and people skills. For example, one 12-year-old guild master went on to run CNet’s infrastructure at an early age and was a VP by age 25.

Not to be outdone, the Google X future technology development lab has “Project Glass,” where it is developing Google’s “glasses” for augmented reality to help the user explore and share his or her world armed with relevant information. Google’s glasses offer a view of the real world with superimposed graphics and will enable a real-time, heads-up display and intelligent personal assistant software (like Siri on steroids) for an enhanced user experience. This technology could also be used in the workplace, with the heads-up display showing information for the conversation or negotiation you are engaged in. In this way, the future workplace can be anywhere you are (as long as you have connectivity).

Head’s-up displays will support seeing more information as an overlay on reality through augmented reality. This should increase productivity and require less searching for critical information.

3. Driverless Cars

How much more work can you do if you don’t have to drive your car to work? Companies such as Google and Facebook provide shuttle busses all over the San Francisco Bay area for employees — not only to be a “greener” company, but also to increase employee productivity. Google already has a fleet of driverless cars roaming the streets and taking pictures for Google Maps.

Nevada is the first US state where the operation of self-driving vehicles is now regulated by law, and I expect to see similar regulations in all 50 states over the next few years. In Berlin, Germany, you can now hail a driverless cab with an iPad app. What this means to future workspaces is that there will be many fewer parking spaces needed, and some of that land or those structures can be converted into workspaces. Driverless cars will also allow employees to work on the way to and from the office.

4. Understanding Brain Function for Various Tasks at Work

There are technologies available that you can wear on your head that show you on a screen what areas of the brain are involved in a specific task. Could task-enhancement drugs not be far behind? Or could selection of employment candidates be based on their brain’s ability to do specific tasks? These new technologies give a whole new twist to the term “talent management.” Understanding brain function will enable employers to pick employees who are best for the task and may possibly lead to the development of performance-enhancing drugs that target the areas of the brain focused on the work task.


With a plethora of new devices entering the workplace, how will IT manage or even keep track of these devices? Innovative new devices are introduced on an ongoing basis at events such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and other industry conferences.

While many companies are slow to adopt these newer technologies, companies such as Facebook, with an average employee median age of 26, gives its employees both an iPhone and an iPad. Orders for 10,000 iPads are not uncommon for some companies today. So now you have many different operating systems, types of devices, and applications (over 500,000 in Apple’s App Store). As Steve Jobs said, “There is an app for everything. And if not, it will be available soon.”

BYOD and BYOA show how a proliferation of new devices not only creates challenges for IT, but also allows employees to pick the device that gives them the highest productivity. This trend and these technologies also allow end users to build their own custom apps by snapping functional pieces together. Again, these technologies will make the future workplace that much more productive.

6. Location-Based Technologies

There are GPS-based applications that can track your car, your shopping habits, your friends nearby, the best place to eat, directions through the subway, social traffic reporting, and many others. There are even Wi-Fi devices that use badges that allow you to track your employees’ locations within a building or campus. This has a huge effect on the workplace, as you can now track where an employee has been and where he or she is now. The goal of these badges is to improve productivity; the theory is, if you know where someone is, you can go and talk to them instead of taking the time to search for them or to ask others where they are. These badges also bring about another significant loss of privacy in the workplace. However, security and productivity are often traded for employee privacy these days.

7. 3D printers

You can buy a 3D printer for about US $800, and they are just what they seem: a printer that lays down a resin instead of ink and allows you to create or print a prototype or object. Since 2003, these printers have become more popular and dropped in cost and they have been in use for several years in jewelry, footwear, engineering, automotive, aerospace, and dental and medical industries. Recently, a new 3D printer called the Solidoodle-2 became available for under $500, which puts it in the price range of a high-end 2D printer.

I predict that everyone in the future will have one of these printers on their desk, which will enable them to print out objects that are needed for specific tasks or projects (like a video camera, for example, if you suddenly need to do high-end videoconferencing). No longer does the workspace have to keep huge amounts of “supplies”; they may be created when needed, making them much easier to track. You could even print out a badge as well, which will track your location so others can find you easily.

There are some companies looking at using these 3D printers on a much larger scale, including printing homes and buildings. Imagine if you could print your own office or office building in a fraction of the time it would take to build it the normal way? This means that everyone’s space does not have to be the same; each can be personalized and created with the occupant’s productivity and comfort in mind.

Customizing the Workplace

These seven technologies allow the future workplace to be customized to fit the employee using it and change for each specific functionality the employee needs during his or her workday. It means information — about other employees or some deal you are working on — is available in a heads-up display and that you have intelligent agents searching for the information you want or need through voice-based commands to streamline work processes and increase productivity. These technologies not only affect the way people work, but where they work, how they work, and what they work on. They also can enhance the employee’s ability to work on a specific task or project, as well as aid employers in selecting the best employees for the task.


David Coleman

David Coleman has been involved with groupware and collaborative technologies since 1989.


  2 Responses to “New Technologies for the New, Collaborative Workplace”

  1. Hi,

    In Driverless cars “What this means to future workspaces is that there will be many fewer parking spaces needed, and some of that land or those structures can be converted into workspaces.” – this could have been phrasd as “What this means to future workspaces is that there will be many fewer parking spaces needed, and some of that land or those structures can be converted into Green areas, so that it will help enviornment..”

  2. Mahesh,

    Yes driverless cars wll free up parking and provide more green areas, but my point was that all of these technologies will change the workplace of the future so dramatically that parking will be one of the smaller issues.


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