By Ali Moinuddin, CMO, Workshare

For more than 100 years, designers and architects have being trying to design a work space that encourages maximum productivity, yet to the detriment of organisations, this has still not yet been truly achieved. However, over the decades we’ve been inching closer. The first major breakthrough in productivity last century came with Henry Ford’s creation of the assembly line in his factories. Factory work was changed forever following that.

In the early 20th century offices resembled factories, but starting in the 1960s layouts changed to become less rigid and more open, fostering teamwork by breaking down physical barriers. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, office design had a new intention: to inspire creativity. Under each new wave of thinking were ideas ahead of their time, and many concepts from previous eras have been improved and incorporated into 21st century design. Today, we are right in the middle of a third, great shift towards decentralised work.

The trend towards decentralised (or virtual) work continues to gain momentum due to two key drivers: 1) rapid advances in information communication technologies, and 2) the growth of newly industrialised countries, whose appetite for creating wealth and jobs is insatiable. Decentralised work, in contrast to outsourcing and offshoring jobs, involves work being carried out in a non-traditional setting previously characterised by organisational walls, management structures, bureaucracy, policies, and culture.

As a result of this, we are going to see two major trends emerge that will affect our workforce: 1) the virtualisation of the workforce and 2) the virtualisation of the marketplace.

Virtual workforce:

The shift towards a more virtual workforce has been happening for some time now. As McKinsey & Company noted in 2012, we’ve already seen a shift from office cubicles to open spaces. Now, many companies are allowing their employees to work remotely. Collaborative mesh networks are rapidly becoming what analysts call “the new operating system of business.” The workplace of relationships will extend well beyond face-to-face interactions, increasingly towards virtual ones. Whether through web streaming, new video-conference technology, social media, or collaboration platforms - people connect however they want, whenever they want and wherever they want. Corporate policies aimed at repressing the use of collaboration platforms for example, will become an exercise in futility as smartphone and tablet users who are used to using consumerised technology continue to circumvent these policies.

Furthermore, the proliferation of work-specific social media software (like Facebook for Work) will make fighting this trend even more difficult. Companies have no choice but to adapt to these trends and use them to foster collaboration, and subsequently productivity. It is an undeniable fact that collaboration improves productivity. In 2013, Forbes Insights conducted a survey which found that 87% of leaders believe collaboration improved communication, product and service delivery, information sharing, and group problem solving.

However, we still have some way to go before a totally virtualised workforce can be as productive as a team that works in close physical proximity. Virtual employees are harder to manage, harder to collaborate with and, according to Harvard Business Review, harder to extend trust to.

Ultimately, the ability for employees to work how and when they want will inevitably increase organisations’ productivity. Allowing employees to get things done on their own time has been well-received by organisations that have already adopted relevant policies. According to FM world, in a survey of businesses by Regus, “74% of [businesses] surveyed last year saw flexible working as a way to improve business productivity”.

Virtual marketplace:

Aside from the virtualisation of jobs, we are also moving towards a virtualisation of marketplaces across industries. Opinion on this is divided. As more and more occupations are becoming virtualised, some say that that jobs are under threat, while others say that virtualisng jobs is empowering employees to get their work done wherever and whenever they need. Referred to as the ‘cloud workforce’, people around the world now bid for contract work. Talent exchange companies will build and maintain virtual employees that compete for work. The result is the steady decrease of salary rates, and those who previously earned healthy incomes in their fields of specialty may face pressure on revenues. To some, this trend represents a race to the bottom for salaries; others find this positive, as it disperses jobs and income generation to less wealthy countries and drives innovation - innovation supported by technology.

This new and inevitable work structure will prove to have a positive impact on both consumers and service providers, mainly because it will force workers to stay as innovative as possible. Gone are the days where consumers and organisations pay high prices for mediocre services due to lack of availability and competition.

If we take a step back and look, we can see how virtual marketplaces have slowly crept into our lives already. Throughout London, self-employed service providers, such as handymen, can bid for work online. Customers can provide reviews, so the best service providers can still charge above-market prices. Marketplaces like this exist everywhere, from the travel industry to the legal industry. And, of course, we can’t forget about the insidious (and no longer running) Silk Road- the virtual black market where people would use virtual currency to bid and pay for illegal services. Everything is becoming virtual, and it will have some interesting implications for the economy.

Looking ahead

Virtualisation is an inevitable trend. As employees start to demand more flexibility in their working structures and entire industries move online, the traditional workplace, as we know it, will be dramatically different in the future. Equipped with this knowledge, organisations must be ready to evolve to find ways to stay competitive. Just as Henry Ford pioneered the production boom of the 1930’s, so too will organisations that adopt the virtual workforce model.