For an interesting look at what’s happened to the modern office, consider the 1970s manager and how this person would have spent his or her day. The manager came in first thing in the morning and unlocked the building, turned on the lights, maybe set the coffee pot brewing. Maybe he or she got some visitors, clients or suppliers, who shook hands and sat down in front of the manager’s desk, in a room at the back of the building. The manager probably hovered around for part of the day, signing off on routine paperwork and micro-managing all of the details involved in maintaining the commercial space, dealing with payroll and other staff issues. Plus, the manager of times past depended on a a good, old landline phone to complete the kinds of communications needed to keep the business growing, support core business activities and plan for the future.

The point here is that a lot of this day-to-day management has already changed in key ways, and it’s likely to keep changing even more in the next few years. As a result, business may be moving toward something you might call "laissez-faire," or "hands-off," management. This isn't to say that managers aren’t still managing. What's changed is the way they do it. With remote management on the rise, many of the details that concerned supervisors in the past may no longer be relevant without a physical space.

So what will the office of the future look like? Let's take a look at a few predictions.

Virtual Networks, Cloud Hosting, Mobile Devices and the Promise of Remote Management

In just the last few years, new industries have been spinning themselves out of thin air as third-party vendor companies create new kinds of B2B services like Web-delivered enterprise support, cloud hosting services and networks that operate globally through IP systems or other far-reaching connections. A lot of this change has to do with the quick proliferation of modern 3G and 4G mobile device networks, and with the continual expansion of our jobs to the Internet. But another part of this evolution seem like a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; as with so many tech projects and innovations, if you build it, they will come.

Technologies like cloud hosted accounting, business process automation and cross-platform data mining for business intelligence all have a simple idea at their core, aside from their very unique applications to business models: They fundamentally shift the burden of management from a physical desk to a virtual space, putting the place where "the buck stops" at any place an executive or top-level manager happens to be. (Get some background reading in The 5 Ways Cloud Technology Will Change the IT Landscape.)

Facilities Management

Another major part of what managers used to do is also being outsourced directly to technology. New building systems tied to long-distance networks can effectively lock and unlock themselves, turn their lights on, set their own thermostats, etc. This is another pillar supporting the theory that the managers of the near future may be sitting in a hotel bar, rather than in their corner offices. In this March 20 piece from Inc. magazine, writer John Brandon describes "smart" businesses that essentially take care of themselves. "You might use the cloud to automate your accounting system, especially when it comes to disaster recovery and back-ups," writes Brandon. "Your building control systems might recognize when you have enabled security for the night, and automatically adjust the temperature. Your Wi-Fi network, normally used for accessing the Web, provides access to the lights, security system and video surveillance." (Read more about how this all works in Top 3 Reasons to Use Remote Management Software.)

A Distributed Workforce

Business processes and mundane maintenance aren't the only things that will be automated. There’s another big aspect of the future workplace that will promote remote management, and that’s the distributed workforce, where more of a manager’s "underlings" will also telecommute. Hiring remote talent saves companies a lot of money, promotes more versatile time tracking and shift-sharing and, by many accounts, makes companies more efficient. As a result, some HR experts are calling telecommuting the way of the future. If so, remote management will follow. After all, there’s no point having a boss around if there’s nobody to supervise. Items like this guide for "Managing a Remote Workforce" are harbingers of a time when a lot of the previous types of boss-worker interactions that used to get done in a conference room will happen over the phone, or better yet, through new audiovisual platforms like the long-awaited video wristwatches we've coveted from Sci-Fi and detective shows for decades.

Executives as the Agents of Change

It’s intuitive to say that it will be up to business leaders to adopt these new kinds of models, but the chief information officer or IT director has a particular role in creating alternative paradigms for a workplace. Here, the suggestion is that the following five "macro-forces" are quickly renovating the face of business today:

  • Analytics: Third-party companies continue to redefine the analytics services available to large and small client offices.
  • Mobile: As mentioned above, mobile devices and wireless networks are shuffling the deck on the physical deployment of people
  • Social: Social media and other digital forums are changing how companies interact with customers and others.
  • Cloud: Cloud hosting and related technologies drive distributed models.
  • Cyber: Virtual venues replace physical rooms and spaces.

The Final Determining Factor

With these winds of change blowing strong, there’s a good chance that a given company’s CIO or other executive decision-maker might opt to release managers and workers from the confines of cubicleville. But, as with many kinds of executive decisions, the whole thing might ultimately come down to one word: competition. A number of key studies have shown that companies offering work-at-home, telecommute or other flexible work options can get a big edge over others in attracting talent and filling job openings with qualified, productive and enthusiastic employees. In other words, it may be that same kind of synergy between a good boss and a diligent, satisfied department that will end up banishing both from the bricks-and-mortar office.