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With technology permeating everything that we do, it’s led to significant transformation in the workplace specifically, how, where (and who) is working and what work employees do. The speed of change and disruption across industries has also caused greater uncertainty as many businesses rethink the way they harness their talent and real estate,” suggests Susan Sutherland, the Singapore-based Head of APAC Corporate Research for real estate firm JLL.

This transformation is largely driven by technology and the employee’s desire for change. A recent JLL survey shows that employees are turning away from the traditional workplace in favor of activity-based working which revolves around sharing and being part of a community. 37% of respondents said they “want to escape their desks,” 40% want more area in the workplace to recharge their energy, while 47% prefer to drop into spaces designed to aid concentration.

In an article for Eco-business, Sutherland looks further into the future to paint the picture of our workforce influenced by the evolving artificially intelligent (AI) automation and freelance trends we are seeing in business today. While AI enabled automation is widely expected to replace human workers in many, if not most, jobs in the future, the consequent economic growth will spur new human roles in service as well as research and development.

The rapid growth in freelancing and remote working is also expected to continue in the future. Remote work is already verging on mainstream; about 25% of all US employees work remotely all or most of the time, and 43% at least sometimes, according to a Gallup poll.

A recent survey of business leaders at the Global Leadership Summit in London found that 34% said more than half their company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020. A full 25% said more than three-quarters would not work in a traditional office by 2020, referenced in our recent report, “The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era”.

Between AI enabled automation and freelancing / remote working the fundamental character of the workplace is changing, it seems less and less humans will be physically present and greater productivity levels will likely be achieved. So what does this mean for the human workplace itself, amid the smart and green building revolutions currently underway?

“Core employees will be concentrated in smaller and fewer locations, ideally in central business districts with transportation and amenities concentrated nearby — reducing their energy and resource usage. This smaller core workforce could mean smaller office footprints requiring less energy from power and less waste generated,” according to Sutherland.

A reduced office-based human workforce is a greener human workforce, simply for sheer occupancy numbers if nothing else. However, our smart green building will continue to be relevant for the decades needed to realise these automated futures, and for that core workforce, a shared physical space may always be important.

“Paradoxically, the more efficient an automated system becomes, the more critical the contribution of human operators,” wrote Calum Chance, in his book “The Economic Singularity”.

Looking even further into the future, but probably not as far as you think, we may start to question whether the vital shared workspace needs to be a physical space. In line with Chance’s statement we may ask, what is more human than a virtual office? The increasing capabilities of virtual reality technology are redefining what an office actually is.

“A virtual office is an office, but it could be so much more. A virtual office could adapt to the needs of the company and the employees with a unlimited supply of meeting rooms, chairs and tables, a virtual office can be one thing in the morning and something else in the afternoon, it can look one way to one person and completely different to another. It can morph into whatever the company wants and allows it to be,” we explained in a later chapter of our report: The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT era.

A virtual office can also be much less. Nothing to clean, nothing to maintain, no commute times, no parking problems, no energy systems to optimize nor light bulbs to change. It is the ultimate in flexibility and personalisation; it is virtually anything you want it to be, and it seems inevitable that it will be a key characteristic of the future of work.

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