ARE you happy with your office? Have you ever imagined what you would find in tomorrow’s office? Well, just take a tour to see what US scientists have prepared for you:

Universities, government labs, and companies like IBM, Microsoft, and US office-furniture maker Steelcase are making plans to change the office environment.

They include: chairs that sense when you’re stressed out and will, perhaps, tell your boss to take away some of your work; PCs that can figure out during your uncertain moments where you’ve seen an unfamiliar name; and desktops that, with a push of a button, transform themselves into a computer monitor to help discussions during a roundtable meeting.

These ideas have one goal in common: To raise white-collar productivity.The idea is to continue the inventions that have transformed offices over the past 15 years. As recently as 1990, voice mail was still being introduced. Email was largely self-contained within companies — attending a meeting in another city meant going there.

Since then, Net communication — such as email, instant messaging, and videoconferencing — has sped up both work and business decisions.

Now, the need for increased efficiency to meet the needs of mobile employees has experts saying that office innovation is about to take another leap.

For example, to adapt products to the mobile workstyle, Microsoft is working on allowing an email or voice-mail message to arrive at whatever computer or phone you’re closest to. Drop your cell phone on your desk when you arrive at work, and special chips in it will route cell calls to your office number, the company says.

Better software can also make collaboration more effective. Surveys show that employees think that half the time they spend in meetings is wasted. So a number of companies, including Microsoft, have developed digital white boards. These are built into desks to allow everyone in a meeting to jot down ideas.

Videoconferencing should improve dramatically as well. In its model office, Microsoft uses cameras to project a 360-degree view of everyone at the table for employees who join a meeting remotely. In an inset screen at the bottom of the first display, they might also show the face of each person who speaks. The idea is to avoid misunderstandings that are common to phone conferencing.

Smart software might boost efficiency in other ways. For instance, it could take over routine tasks and leave more time for creative thinking. Sandia National Laboratories is developing a programme that lets a PC or other computing device take in the knowledge within your files. In that way, you can retrieve information based on the data you’d like to find rather than using a file name, says Chris Forsythe, a member of Sandia’s technical staff.

A more advanced version of this software would know that you’ve been called away during a conference call, and it would give you a typed summary of the most important points the caller discussed. Essentially, it would act as a personal assistant, says Forsythe.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Palo Alto (California) Research Centre are developing programmes that should help an office worker who’s been asked to develop a 400-page report overnight, says Mark Stefik. The programme can sum up the main points and present them in grammatically correct sentences in just a few pages.

Another way to accomplish that is for employees to wear a badge with radio-frequency identification. As you approach your office, a scanner might read the badge and tell your computer, which would then open to the page you last read.

However, experts say that many of these technologies will have to get cheaper before they can be commercialized. And because office furniture typically has a 10-year lifespan, replacement will be gradual.


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