An article in Time magazine, published in 2000, depicted a futuristic white-collar worker called “Icon Woman” who would find jobs “on the web” to do at home. She would work with “a far-flung virtual stable of teammates (most of whom she’s never met)”, while “her fully wired home is her castle”.

Yet almost 20 years later, workers worldwide still flock to offices each day. The percentage of US employees who work from home increased from 3.3 per cent in 2000 to 5.2 per cent in 2017, census data show — leaving almost 95 per cent still travelling to work.

While few now doubt that offices will exist in 2050, digital and cultural shifts are fast changing the fabric of the office.

“We don’t have to go to work to work. I’ll go to the office when I want to support my sense of belonging, of community,” says Despina Katsikakis, head of occupier business performance at property agent Cushman & Wakefield.

“This means our whole perception of the office as a building needs to shift to the office being a network of physical and virtual places that supports me to do my best work,” she says.

This will bring “reconfigurability” to the office, which is different from the standardisation we see today. Ranks of desks in open spaces are already giving way to features that enable the environment to adapt to workers’ needs. Shared office groups such as Knotel offer moveable furniture, including phone booths and modular walls.

Knotel on 5-9 Union Square, NYC
Shared office groups such as Knotel offer moveable furniture © Knotel

Smartphones can make this personalisation even more granular, adapting work spaces to each individual. Connected buildings learn how a worker uses them and will tailor the air, light, desks — even the coffee — to each member of staff. “[Offices will be] more smart and more human at the same time — it’s an interesting dichotomy,” says Ms Katsikakis.

Edge Technologies, a Dutch property developer, claims to have “made a computer out of a building”. Workers at Deloitte, a tenant in an Edge building in Amsterdam, have a smartphone app that will find them a car parking space (if they need one) and desks, and adjusts the environment to suit individuals.

While much of this technology already exists, the pace of innovation will accelerate over the next 20 years, says Guy Grainger, chief executive for Europe, Middle East and Africa for JLL, the property consultants. “The speed at which workplaces will change is correlated with the speed of our adoption of new technologies and ways of working. The next generation [of workers] are digital natives and they’re a different animal,” he says.

Tech developments will enhance the tools available to office workers. Seamless virtual meetings with real-time language translation will become routine and replace the awkward conference call, says Ms Katsikakis.

Glass installed in buildings by View, a Californian company that makes “intelligent” windows, already adjusts its tinting to alter heat and light levels. The company is also developing sensors to warn of intruders and windows that turn into interactive screens, says Jeff Platon, a vice-president.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will eliminate some repetitive office jobs, such as tax preparation, according to a study by academics at Oxford university. Humans will be left with the jobs that require problem-solving, social and emotional response and creativity, according to JLL.

Office design will foster these skills, along with greater personal interaction. That is already happening: staircases, once tucked into the corners of buildings, are increasingly built as centrepieces to encourage activity and connection, while canteens and breakout areas have gained prominence.

Desks will still be a feature of offices but chairs could vanish thanks to an awareness of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, according to Mr Grainger. He suggests standing desks will be the main fixtures, alongside a few benches.

Workplaces that offer an inspiring interior will also need to consider their carbon footprint. At the Deloitte office in Amsterdam, sections of the building can be shut down to save energy on days when fewer staff are expected. “Energy consumption can go down by 30 to 40 per cent,” says Coen van Oostrom, chief executive of Edge Technologies.

Sustainability concerns will also lead to a resurgence of wooden structures rather than carbon-intensive concrete, according to Philip Oldfield, director of the architecture programme at New South Wales university.

In this quest for smart offices, workers will have to sacrifice some norms — including space and their own desks. Agile working enables many companies to cut costs by providing fewer desks for their workforce, while average space per person shrank by 8.3 per cent between 2009 and 2018, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Privacy may also suffer. Sensors that track movement and the use of office facilities are already common — following individual workers is becoming more so.

The app that people use in Edge Technologies’ developments already has location services. “You can see where your colleagues are,” says Mr van Oostrom. “You can switch it off if you don’t want to be seen by the building but most people want to be visible.”

He says automated gates, which recognise number plates and then let drivers into the car park, were opposed by unions which said it could resemble “clocking in and out”. Workers, though, were seduced by the convenience. “As soon as technology has a clear advantage then the privacy issue is not so big,” says Mr van Oostrom.

The high-tech offices of 2050 will not be for everyone, however. In fact, the number of people with the right to work in such smart spaces may diminish with the growth of the freelance and gig economies.

Lee Elliott, global head of occupier research at Knight Frank, warns that even as offices improve, working environments will become “more polarised” between “elephants and fleas”.

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