Is this the death of the office desk?

The typewriter. The fax machine. Corded phones. Over the past few decades, technology has evolved, and, along the way, slower or cumbersome species of technology have become extinct.

What’s on today’s endangered species list? The office desk and, along with it, our ideas of in-office desktop computing.

Why is the desk office endangered? It’s no longer necessary. Employees can and do work remotely, thanks to fast Internet connections and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

In the first three months of 2014, almost 14% of the UK workforce – some 4.2 million workers – worked from home. This is the highest percentage of home workers since the Office of National Statistics (ONS) began tracking homeworkers in 1998. Among those 4.2 million workers, 1.5 million work in the home or in a studio or other building at their place of residence. The others divide their time between working at home and traveling to meet with clients.

These numbers are bound to keep rising for two reasons. First, as of 30 June 2014, every employee in the UK gained the right to request flexible working, which includes working flexible hours and in many cases working from home. Numerous organisations are encouraging flexible hours, having noticed significant improvements in morale and productivity.

> See also: So you want flexible workers – but do you have the right collaboration strategy?

The second reason for the increase is technology. Today’s workforce has been mobilised. Workers are carrying smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Increasingly, they are working with cloud services, which are accessible equally in home offices, cafes, hotel lobbies, and cubicles.

Conference calls and video sessions, which previously required special rooms and expensive equipment, are now available on every smartphone or tablet and are essentially free. Workers no longer have to congregate in an office for productive meetings or to collaborate. Today an 'office' is simply wherever a connected mobile worker happens to be.

Of course, evolutionary advances usually succeed only if they address critical environmental requirements which older species, in retrospect, managed so well. Because office desks provided a wired or wireless connection to the internal network, workers at their desks had fast, secure access to the file servers and applications they needed for their jobs.

For mobile workers, getting that fast, secure access to content can be a challenge. The default technology for providing secure network access for remote workers is a VPN, but VPNs are notoriously slow and cumbersome on smartphones and tablets.

This leads worker to seek different options, which sometimes include risky behaviour, such as copying internal files to a free public-cloud file-sharing service such as Dropbox. This puts critical content outside the purview and protection of the IT department. A few data breaches from casual file sharing may prompt some managers to think less favourably of employees working remotely.

There’s a lot to gain from supporting remote work and flexible hours, so organisations should put serious thought into giving mobile workers the content and productivity tools they really need. At the same time, organisations should ensure that their new mobile productivity solutions keep their IT operations secure and compliant. 

> See also: In the era of the mobile workforce, why do we keep putting up with bad coverage?

Fortunately, recent advances in content management and mobile productivity solutions have rendered VPNs about as necessary as a tailbone. Software applications with secure containers on mobile devices can enforce rigorous security controls, encrypting data and shielding the organisation’s data from malware or other interference from personal data that might also be stored on the mobile device.

'Mobile-first' designs in content management allow workers to collect, edit, create, and share all kinds of files from Enterprise Content Management platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint and EMC Documentum. Advances in user interfaces are creating mobile applications that are genuinely easy to use on small screens with limited keyboard support.

Secure enterprise content management solutions enable organisations and their workers to flourish in today’s new mobile environment. As for the office desk? For a growing number of organisations, it’s a quaint relic from a bygone era. Hard to imagine going back to those days.

Sourced from Keith Poyser, EMEA MD, Accellion

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...