Working progress: modern-day office

From filming a low-budget thriller to making music in your bedroom, game-changing technology is allowing us to work where we please. Vision reports

In February 2007 a young filmmaker called Oren Peli hired two actors. Using his Californian home as the studio and fixed cameras instead of a film crew, he created a horror movie. The total budget for his film, Paranormal Activity, was just US$15,000. It would go on to make US$194m at the box office, making it the most profitable film ever made.

Peli had no experience as a film director. What he did have was a thorough understanding of digital technology from his job as a software programmer, which gave him an insight into how consumer tech could be used to create a movie.

With his DIY film, Peli challenged the traditional Hollywood model of movie making. Technology has had a similar effect on the music industry, in which record companies now compete against artists who have recorded, promoted and distributed their music from a home PC.

Changing attitudes

These same kind of shifts are now starting to be seen in the world of work. Our fundamental ideas of what “work” is are being questioned, and with it the physical location of where we work: the office. The office has been at the heart of the business world for 600 years and has helped to forge our attitudes on business structures and practices.

Modern-day offices can be traced back to the 16th century and the emergence of the banking sector, with buildings such as the Palazzo Uffizi in Florence. These buildings contained all the elements we associate with modern-day offices, with departments, meeting areas and conference rooms.

But for a new generation of entrepreneurs our reliance on “office thinking” is stopping us from taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital world. Jason Fried is the business equivalent of Oren Peli, somebody who is challenging all of our established ideas.

His Chicago-based company, 37 Signals, develops digital collaboration tools such as Basecamp, which aims to replace the need for a physical office. Since its launch in 2004, Basecamp has become massively popular and is now used by more than eight million organisations across the globe.

It is a cloud-based system that allows tasks to be coordinated between groups of workers, no matter where they are. Peli believes the unintentional effect of putting people in the same space is to create constant distraction with meetings, chatter and general office hubbub, all of which reduces productivity.

He said: “I think one of the mistakes people make when thinking about this is to focus too much on the technology. That’s really not the issue any more. It’s more about our own mindsets.”

Smaller and medium-size companies are really embracing the opportunities presented by these digital communication tools. A new generation of businesses, such as the Dubai-based digital marketing company Infamous Web Design, is also emerging.

Launched in 2011, Infamous Web Design uses a combination of tools to coordinate a network of creatives located across the world. Feras Arafe, Managing Director, says: “The way our company works simply wouldn’t have been possible five years ago. But the technology has reached a level now where there’s really no difference between having somebody in the next room or in the next continent.

“One of the benefits for our kind of creative work is that it allows us to focus purely on the ideas and it strips away the “noise” and politics, which can get in the way when you’re in an office.”

Remote working

Infamous Web Design has been able to organise itself from the ground up to reflect its use of remote working, but it can be a much harder leap to make for organisations who have evolved with a traditional office structure. For UK-based company, Webexpenses, it has been a gradual transition.

The company, which provides a cloud-based expenses management service, has seen a 30 per cent yearly growth in business since it adopted a remote working policy. Co-founder and Managing Director, Sanjay Parekh, says: “Initially, it was something of a leap of faith to let people work from home but we found that by giving people this freedom, it enabled them to work much more efficiently.”

But, for one company, breaking down the barriers between our work and home is just the initial stage of a more dramatic change. The global network communications company Cisco views the future as a place where our work lives are totally integrated with… absolutely everything.

It has launched an ambitious 10-year project that aims to use cloud computing to link all aspects of our lives into the digital world. The Internet of Everything project predicts a future where physical objects are as connected as people and data. The process has already started, with many of our consumer devices already connected online.

Rabih Dabboussi, Managing Director, Cisco in UAE, says: “We are going to see unprecedented change over the coming years as cloud computing starts to link all aspects of our lives together. The big question is how can we use this connectivity to help our businesses to grow, deliver better services and to open up new possibilities.

Cisco predicts that the Internet of Everything will add an extra US$14.4tn to the global economy by opening up a new world of business opportunities, and entire new industries which are not yet possible. Its the kind of clear-sky thinking that highlights the point made by Jason Fried; that the limitations on our future world of work are now more about our mindsets, than our technology.