Disruption: First Newspapers, Then Shopping… Is the Workplace Next?

The internet has brought huge change and disruption to our lives, knocking down one institution after another, although many people “in the know” at the time discounted the possibilities.  Is it possible that the workplace, as we know it today, will soon be completely changed by the tidal wave of new technology? Can we trust the predictions? Let’s take a look at a couple of past examples.

A first disruption was printed information like books, magazines and newspapers. A famous prediction from 1995 said, “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” It turns out that, while 61% of Americans say they still get news from a newspaper, 69% also use a computer, about 55% use their phone, and almost 30% read it on a tablet. And about 30% of books are downloaded versus bought in print. So lots of change, yes. But not total.

The next example is shopping. Time Magazine once said that “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” Reality: In October, The National Retail Federation reported that 46 percent of holiday season shopping this year will be conducted online. I know the delivery guy shows up at my house pretty regularly. Ordering from a website is so much easier than getting in a car and driving miles to buy something; I’m surprised it’s not well over 50%.

What these prediction vs. reality comparisons tell me is that we tend to look at the future in polarizing terms, i.e., ‘either everyone will get news online’ or ‘the internet will collapse’ (that prediction was actually made this year!). But reality is usually a mixture of both.

Which leads me to the future of the workplace.

It would be easy to predict a future workplace where employees have been largely replaced by robots. Or even annihilated, as described recently in this WSJ article where Merrill Lynch warned of the coming “Robot Apocalypse,” complete with killer robots and autonomous killing weapons. Or maybe we will still be employed but working at home in our virtual environments. Mark Zuckerberg may be preparing for this with his recent $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality provider.

On the other hand, another expert said that VR makes you kind of seasick, and that, “Nothing in the near future will be able to balance that feeling of cyber sickness, technically.” He said that just last year, but the problem has already been solved, with Samsung introducing its VR equipment earlier this month and selling out the first day. If predictions made just last year are already turning out to be wrong, how can we figure out what the next few years will bring?

I think the way to figure this out is to look backwards, at the innovations that have already happened and how they actually affected the workplace; things like the telephone, fax machine, cell phone, desktop computer and the internet. Those inventions were disruptive and launched multi-billion dollar industries, but for the most part people still drive to work, sit at a desk (or steering wheel or machine) and get their work done. This is what will continue to happen because decades-long patterns are difficult to change.

As much as I’d like to predict we’ll all be wearing jetpacks and flying through virtual companies in 5 years, the workplace will look much like it does today. Change will be an iterative process. We’ll have faster processors to crunch data, better user interfaces and sensors galore all over the place. We won’t have to unlock doors, turn on lights, or clock in or out. Our clerical work will be handled mostly by voice command, making our jobs less routine and more creative and exciting. And we humans will still be needed to show up for work. In other words, the workplace will still look pretty much like it does now, but if you look closely, you’ll find plenty of change.

What will it look like in 10 years? I’ll blog about that in 5 years on my virtual computer while being driven to work in my self-driving car… and that’s one prediction I think actually will happen.

Frank Kenna III
December 2, 2015

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