“30 years from now, the nature of work is likely to be very different.”
What changes do you expect will occur in people’s work lives between now and 20 or 30 years in the future?
We´ve been doing our own trends report in the studio. We work with different sectors; from aviation to workplace and hospitality to healthcare and get different insights from different clients. Different subjects, for example technology, wellbeing and demography — give us different ideas about how work is likely to change. As regards technology, the rise of artificial intelligence is predicted to have a very big impact. So if you are talking about 30 years’ time from now, I think the nature of work is likely to be very different. Many normal activities that were usually carried out by people will be replaced by technology. Even the idea of working may have already disappeared. Because there won´t be enough work. Or, we will have to re-establish how and why we work in society. This is a really major issue. There won´t be enough work for people to do. And that will be especially true for low-skilled work. We will have to organise our society differently, and support each other differently. Last week, I visited a factory in Italy that produces two and a half million chairs per year, yet only employs fifty people. Strangely, within the capitalist philosophy that is seen as a success, because the company makes more profit as a result of employing fewer people. But in social terms, it should be seen as a failure, because it serves so few people. Really, we need to make certain that everyone is actively contributing to the world. We could spend all day on this one issue.
Thinking about workplaces of the future, do you believe we’ll still be relying on offices, and if so, how do you imagine the office of the future will differ from a typical office today?
One crucial part of this involves the idea of ownership. That is to say, the belief that we should own the things we need, which I think is slowly breaking down. The notion that you work for one company, and the company has one building and owns their computers as well as their furniture. In the present, the idea of what we call the sharing economy is becoming more and more prevalent. The co-working revolution, I believe, is but the seed of an idea for much greater flexibility in our use of physical work spaces. I often think about how a new building is only used for eight or ten hours a day, but is dark and/or closed the rest of the time. Also, as we know very well, from research, 50 percent of desks “owned” by people are actually unused at any one time. Often, buildings being used for 8 or 10 hours per day are only being used at 50 percent of their capacity during that time. Thus, the structure as a whole is only really being used four or five hours a day. And don’t forget that many of these big concrete and glass buildings are both costly and injurious to the environment. Therefore, I think old ideas of how we put architecture and work space together will have to radically evolve. I think that in the future, all work space will be co-working space. Organisations will make use of their own spare capacity, by, for example, inviting other people in to work there, and by becoming more flexible in their own environments. The infrastructure of work is likely to change greatly over just the next generation. There are data from McKinsey in America, for example, showing that by 2020, up to 50% of all Americans will be self-employed, which is an extraordinary thing to think about. People now outsource much more readily. Organisations are becoming far smaller and leaner. They are using sub-contractors and consultants much more often. And, companies are increasingly able to do that kind of thing without having to pay employee pensions, health care costs and/or overhead for maintenance of physical workspaces.
What about home offices? Will home offices play a major role in the future?
What home offices can’t provide us is the opportunity to work directly together with other people. This issue, of course, has many layers. Naturally, knowledge-based work most often results from collaborations. Social capital is created when people come together. We know that if people are relocated to their home offices you never get a sense of the real social capital of a company. People need to come together to connect, to meet and to socialise. I think home work will definitely have a part to play in the future, but will not entirely replace going to a more central office. There will always be a need to bring people together.
Will technology occasion changes in how people collaborate with colleagues, clients and/or external stakeholders?
Where technology constantly advances faster than each of architecture, furniture and space management, we face challenges. There’s always tension between the opportunities presented by technology and the realities of the workplace. That advancement of technology, though, is likely to continue challenging the status quo and opening up new paths for collaboration. I believe a whole world of work, of co-working and collaboration, has been facilitated by advanced technology. Technology, in fact, is perhaps the single greatest influence on our work lives. I predict that we will be very surprised, in ten years’ time, by what we’ll be able to do in terms of collaboration. I think technology will give us new modes of work, replacing the pencil and paper, in a way. Another point is that we all now live in a global workplace. Geographically, the world has grown smaller, but additionally, we are now working simultaneously with so many different cultures. Everyone´s market is everyone´s market. We have to understand the power, but also the danger of that in terms of what we want as a world. I think people are beginning to realise that globalisation is not all good, it creates challenges with which we are not necessarily always comfortable. We’re continually having to look forward, trying to understand what is around us and thinking about the future all the time, attempting to make sense of it.
Tom is cofounder and director of the London design studio PearsonLloyd. He trained in Furniture Design at Nottingham before completing an MA in Industrial Design at the RCA in 1993. Tom founded PearsonLloyd with Luke Pearson in 1997. The studio’s work focuses on design for manufacture in the fields of furniture, transport design and the public realm and has a reputation for producing modern designs that combine aesthetic clarity with functional and technological innovation.