Wake-up Call: Why offices are still needed in the digital age

We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, generate ideas and pool talents

"Distance will die," or so predicted British economist Frances Cairncross, along with a host of social and media theorists, after the spread of the internet in the 1990s.

Offices would become obsolete: Why go to work when work can come to you?

But history has charted a different course. Today's technology allows global and instantaneous communication, but most of us still commute to offices. Telecommuting has not picked up as much as many thought it would.

Meanwhile, lots of corporations are investing in new or renovated office spaces in urban areas.


What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere, that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, generate ideas and pool talents.

Human interaction is a vital aspect of work, and that's why the quality of the physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever.

We have already witnessed the transition from the mid-century warren of cubicles to more sociable, open and flexible spaces.

More recently, co-working has gained traction, demonstrating the value of sharing a space with like-minded people. These spaces are open to different disciplines and give professionals the opportunity to be part of a curated network.

As they strive to engineer creativity, co-working space providers are also experimenting with quantifying human interactions. And this is where they may have the biggest influence on how offices are designed.

Understanding how the workforce connects within a flexible working environment is crucial for designing and operating next-generation offices.


New digital tools are emerging to measure human connections and spatial behaviour and how they relate to productivity and creativity.

Real-time data paired with digitally integrated furniture and buildings are just the beginning. Eventually, they may even enable the creation of workplaces that respond and evolve on their own.

Throughout history, buildings have been rigid and uncompromising. With better data, we could design an environment that adapts to humans. Imagine rooms that automatically go on standby and save energy when empty. More generally, buildings may operate as dynamic systems that work in concert with humans.

The transformation of our work environments is just beginning, but it could have a major impact on architects, developers, corporations and society. Far from making offices obsolete, technology will transform workspaces. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

Carlo Ratti directs the MIT Senseable City Lab and the design office Carlo Ratti Associati. Matthew Claudel is a researcher at the MIT Senseable City Lab and the Lab for Innovation Science & Policy.