Future Offices Will Look A Lot Like 'Harry Potter'

Hattanas Kumchai/Shutterstock.com

Some offices might become a bit more magical.

The office of the future probably won’t look like something out of The Jetsons, with levitating desks and workers who communicate telepathically. But it could resemble a different fictional realm.

“It’s going to look a lot more like Harry Potter,” says Ben Waber, the co-founder of Humanyze, a start-up that focuses on “people analytics” (more on that later).

What he means is that offices will appear much as they do today—only with a few magical flourishes here and there. Harry Potter’s world still has staircases, after all, but ones that can move themselves around the building. Similarly, Waber predicts that the white-collar workers of, say, 2030 will commute to normal-looking offices and sip coffee at normal-looking desks. But the company’s espresso machine might, for example, be programmed to find the two teams that need to collaborate on a project and roll itself into position so that those workers will get up and spitball ideas over cappuccinos.

That’s just Waber’s prediction, of course, but it jibes with the thinking of others I recently interviewed, including architects, designers, researchers, and entrepreneurs. Office furniture and gadgets will watch what we do and, in some cases, report back to the boss. Robots will patrol corporate campuses. Desks will automatically reconfigure themselves. And companies will use technology to get employees to talk with one another—as well as to stay focused amidst all the chatter.

A “Natural” Environment

Exposure to nature has been shown to lift spirits and reduce stress in a variety of settings. The office is no exception: workers who regularly get a glimpse of greenery have been found to have better attention spans and higher job satisfaction. Alas, few offices are situated in a peaceful woodland. Many of us, in fact, toil beneath fluorescent lights and air vents that crank out arctic breezes.

Some companies are trying to make the office at least feel more natural. Amazon’s new headquarters in Seattle will have three biospheres—greenhouse-like domes filled with plants and five stories of flexible work spaces—and earlier this year Google proposed a headquarters expansion that would have included indoor bike paths, plentiful flora, and a translucent roof. (The Mountain View, California, city council nixed the plan, awarding most of the land to LinkedIn instead.) Companies with more-modest budgets are opting to install wallpaper and carpeting that mimic patterns found in nature or build “green walls”—essentially vertical gardens.

Offices may begin to sound like the natural world, too. Many open-plan offices already pump in white noise to provide privacy and minimize distractions, but researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, found that people prefer the sound of flowing water to white noise, and that the more natural sound is just as good for concentration.

Uncomfortable office temperatures are another known productivity killer. Chu Foxlin, a senior interior architect with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told me that companies are installing systems that give employees more control over the temperature in their work spaces.

The Automatic Office

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are developing office furniture that could, with the help of sensors, wheels, and motors, transform as the needs of workers shift throughout the day. A desk could expand to become a conference table, and walls could descend from the ceiling to create a meeting space. Furniture could sync with a calendar or with a wearable device that could tell, for instance, that an employee has been sitting for too long.

“Maybe our two desks should get together and create a room for us,” Hasier Larrea, an engineer at the lab, told me. “And as soon as that meeting is over, why do we need to have a room? Could we open that room and create a socializing space?”

Perhaps most appealing for budget-conscious businesses, mutable furnishings could be crammed into a much smaller area than traditional office configurations require.

Office workers may also have to get used to having robots in their midst. Knightscope, a start-up in Mountain View, has created a robot called K5 to serve as a “front-line guardian”—a nonhuman security guard. Using sensors and cameras, it can detect anomalous human behavior and beam a warning back to a command center. Meanwhile, a Canadian company called Avidbots is building robots that clean commercial spaces using laser mapping and coordinate their efforts with swarm-like communications.

Productive Collisions

Ever since Steve Jobs arranged Pixar’s offices around a central atrium so that employees would run into one another, CEOs in Silicon Valley and beyond have been obsessed with fostering opportunities for spontaneous brainstorming. Facebook’s new headquarters is reportedly the world’s largest open-plan work space, and Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, talks often about “collisionable hours”—the amount of time people spend circulating and, ideally, exchanging ideas.

Humanyze, Ben Waber’s people-analytics company, aims to help companies engineer such collisions. It furnishes workers with ID badges equipped with microphones and accelerometers. The badges keep track of employees’ interactions, measuring things like speaking volume and tone of voice, and then feed anonymized data back to the mother ship. That way, a company can determine whether moving its programmers closer to its designers actually improves teamwork, or whether Friday happy hours are a good way to get employees from different departments to cross-pollinate. Currently, more than 10,000 Humanyze badges roam the wild, eavesdropping on office matters large and small.

Your Desk Is Watching You

The Humanyze badges are part of a larger (and rather disconcerting) trend toward office equipment that can spy on workers. Another example: VoloMetrix, a people-analytics software program that helps companies monitor how efficiently their employees communicate. It extracts calendar appointments and e-mails from employees’ computers, anonymizes the information, and looks to see whether those check-ins boost the bottom line.

One of VoloMetrix’s services is a personal dashboard that shows employees how much of other people’s time they consume by sending e-mails or holding meetings. The tool attempts to estimate how efficient each meeting is, based on measures like how many people attend and how many e-mails are sent during the gathering—a sign of low engagement. The dashboards reportedly free up an average of about two hours a week for each employee.

Even our chairs can monitor us. A seat cushion called the Darma promises to use fiber-optic sensors to track the sitter’s heart rate, posture, breathing, and other vitals. Based on those signals, an accompanying smartphone app reminds the person to take a break or stand for a spell. The company that makes the Darma plans to begin shipping cushions this year. Steelcase, an office-furniture company, is considering incorporating the technology into one of its chairs.

Privacy in an Open Office

Open-plan offices seem here to stay, despite the fact that studies have found they contribute to high stress and blood pressure. Still, the moans of introverts haven’t gone completely unheard: some employers have realized that workers occasionally need privacy, and are building areas for sensitive conversations or independent work.

After a group of scientists complained to Chu Foxlin, the Cambridge architect, about distracting office noise, for example, she proposed installing isolation cones—made of felt and large enough to work inside—that would hang from the ceiling to about three feet from the floor.

Steelcase is introducing a brightly colored pod called the Brody Worklounge. It’s a lounge-style chair with a privacy screen that wraps around the worker, entombing him or her in a cocoon of privacy and, one hopes, productivity. To provide a little seclusion at long group tables, Steelcase makes foot-tall desk dividers. In the future, the company may add a technology that would allow the dividers to change, with the flick of a switch, from translucent to opaque red, a newfangled Do Not Disturb sign.

Brian Heffron, a partner at a Boston marketing firm where most employees sit together at large tables, is skeptical that such gentle signals work. For a while, employees at his firm tried putting up flags or action figures to indicate that they didn’t want to be interrupted.

“It never seemed to work,” he says. “If someone needs help immediately, they just tended to ask for it.”

That’s one reason the company created quiet rooms with doors. Even for the most gregarious of workers, it seems, sometimes hell is (a communal workbench shared with) other people.

(Image via Hattanas Kumchai/ Shutterstock.com)