The Fate of the Office in the ‘Post-Work Era’

With the rise of automation, human work may soon be a thing of the past. But when we reach this ‘post-work era’, what will become of the millions of offices that line our skylines?

Professor Moshe Vardi of Rice University estimates that 50 percent of human jobs may be obsolete in 30 years, as artificial intelligences and robots take over. So far, robots have replaced us in warehouse worker and truck driver roles, but experts say office jobs are far from safe. Once humans are automated out of these occupations, the fate of the office is uncertain.

Offices in the Short-Term Future

Even before we feel the effects of AI employment, offices are already changing. Serviced office provider i2 Office has seen a sharp increase in businesses turning to coworking—sharing offices with other businesses—which many startups and small businesses prefer for the flexible contracts and lower prices.

This trend has been accompanied by attempts to turn offices into fun, enjoyable environments. Google’s Zurich office, for example, has an aquarium, a massage room, and a slide that connects workers to the canteen. Skullcandy’s office, also in Zurich, has mobile desks that fit together like jigsaw pieces. Deloitte’s HQ in Amsterdam has one empty room per floor for employees to furnish however they like. (Naturally, they chose to install table football.)

These fun, innovative offices sound exciting, but when the impact of automation fully kicks in, those fun offices of the future may be left to gather dust.

Which Office Jobs Will Go?

As mentioned, there are several human jobs which we have already started to fall by the wayside thanks to automation. Warehouses are now staffed by AI-equipped robots, deliveries are already handled by drones, and taxi drivers will soon give way to self-driving cabs. Even more prominently, we have seen retail cashiers replaced en mass by self-service checkouts, which now handle up to 70 percent of transactions.

Office jobs will no doubt be next, with some already being automated. Robot receptionists are quickly becoming more popular. Lifelike robot ‘Nadine’ currently welcomes visitors to Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Two Belgian hospitals now have the miniature AI android ‘Pepper’ providing hospitality.

Due to their physical presence, these robots will fit into existing offices easily. But thanks to automation in other areas, offices may be extinct. One UK survey found that 80 percent of British businesses are planning to replace office workers with automated programs. White collar jobs that are very routine-based are likely to be fully automated in the future, according to these businesses, whereas jobs that require creative thinking are less at risk. The survey found office jobs in admin, HR, finance and sales are the most likely to be replaced with automation, especially in larger companies.

These roles are more likely to be replaced with AI computer programs than humanoid robots like Nadine, as they do not require a ‘caring’ human touch.

Where Does That Leave Offices?

If admin, HR and finance jobs are taking place on a computer network, what will happen to offices? The geography of every society is based around centers of work. With fewer people needing to commute to large, office-filled cities, the cities themselves may start to empty out. The Atlantic wonders if the decline of work would “make office buildings unnecessary.” They could be turned into apartments, or they could be left abandoned.

With thousands of new offices being built around the world, this is certainly a question that needs answering. The answer may lie in what humans do if they don’t go to work. There are some human jobs that will survive the automated future. The estimate, after all, is that only 50 percent will go. Politicians, maintenance staff and of course AI engineers and programmers will be needed, but as Vardi and others agree, many of us will be out of work—and society will function without our labor. If we handle this development well, offices may have a future.

The Best Case Scenario

A universal basic income would allow people to survive the post-work era without having to compete ruthlessly for one of the remaining human jobs. This, in turn, would give people the opportunity to pursue whatever endeavors they wanted in their time. One suggestion is that humans might dedicate their time to creative pursuits, producing cultural works.

Since most agree that work is what makes us human, it is likely that people will do something productive with their time, be it creative or otherwise. Whatever people do, they may well want to collaborate in some kind of work environment, not entirely unlike an office. Perhaps we will be using those canteen slides after all.

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Written by:
Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.
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