When it comes to predicting the future of technology these last 20 years, Ars has had its occasional slam-dunk predictions mixed in with some admittedly uneven guesses. So I’m lucky to begin this article with a no-brainer conclusion: over the next five years, more offices and businesses across the globe will increase their reliance on work-from-home systems.
In other news, water is wet and bears defecate in the woods. In our connected world, computers are a likely common tool at almost any workplace—arguably they’re more of a given than even having to be in a particular place. So long as you log in, get your work done, and communicate with colleagues, your computer can be on Mars for all your boss cares.
But how will more companies take the remote-workplace plunge, and what trends will emerge as a result? That’s a tougher prediction to make, but I’ve been asked to poke my head out of my Tech Culture Editor cave to offer some answers based on my knowledge as an Ars staffer for six years—and as a “remote” worker for even longer than that. How long? My first job, in 1996, revolved around working from home as a newspaper columnist (my mom’s home, to be accurate, since I was still in high school).
Since then, the tools and processes surrounding remote workplaces have moved forward at a breakneck pace. And as more businesses imagine taking the remote-workplace plunge, nearly as many businesses seem to have arrived to cash in. Thus, I’m here to synthesize the current state of WFH workplaces and track out the next five years of changes in the field.
Before we begin: this is a macro-level look at the future of Internet-connected workplaces, as opposed to a nuts-and-bolts examination of the technologies that will connect them. You’ll see much more about the potential end-user experience than the backend systems that they’ll likely rely on. But I welcome our usual readers’ perspectives as sysops engineers on what’s to come in our comments section below.
One app to rule them all? The battle for workplace comms
As of press time, a plethora of computer and smartphone apps compete for remote workplace dominance. Last week, my colleague Lee Hutchinson broke down some examples of what Ars Technica employs to keep its remote staffers working together in unison, and you may have noticed it’s a patchwork system.
Email here; Slack there; dedicated VoIP over there; Google Sheets down yonder; and a sprinkle of Zoom.US videoconferencing in a pinch. It sounds like quite a juggle, but in these Wild-West days where remote workforces are the minority, that’s arguably a smarter way to operate. Should one of these protocols eventually prove lacking for our needs, we can ideally swap a single piece out instead of swapping our entire workplace suite of apps. (That’s exactly what happened when we transitioned from IRC to Slack in the mid-’10s.)
That being said, a unified suite of apps and communication protocols dedicated to remote offices is likely the more appealing option for any workforce with a significant work-from-home contingent (and a less technologically savvy one, at that). This is precisely where Google’s product-murdering spree could benefit Microsoft. Google’s suite of connected office apps functions quite well, but the company doesn’t really have an agreed-upon chat app, and it’s hard to overstate the usefulness of a casual, watercooler-like chat app to let colleagues alternate between serious conversations and bond-building gibberish. Hence, the immediate success of Microsoft Teams is a critical component of the future of Office 365 as a one-stop shop for companies who want a one-and-done suite for communication, collaboration, calendars, file-sharing, and more.
Calendar access, in particular, is a pillar of team-based collaboration. Meetings, deadlines, vacations, happy hours: a productive workforce is nothing without ways to communicate, share, and agree on time frames for every imaginable workplace scenario. Without regular in-person reminders about events and schedules, the ability to connect those dates and times to your chats and emails connects the sinewy tissue that is a forgetful, busy workforce. (In my personal experience, managing the Ars Technica “culture” calendar of films, TV series, festivals, and more suffers greatly from not connecting more centrally to the full Ars Technica staff.)
Microsoft’s transition to the world of Office 365 hasn’t been perfect, but it currently benefits from full connectivity between all its parts (not just its calendar, though that’s certainly a crucial part). Assuming another major player doesn’t stroll into the marketplace with an all-in-one app suite, particularly with a killer video-meeting component, this is Microsoft’s battle to lose. (Apple, someday? Maybe?)
Liability, subpoenas, and human resources
When thinking about Slack, today’s second-place player in the field of workplace-chat software, it’s hard to imagine a five-year span whizzing by without at least one PR nightmare based on data retention. Slack’s free tier deletes all messages for users after a two-week span… but Slack retains that entire message history on its own servers, which it will conveniently unlock for workplaces should they upgrade to a paid tier. Slack may very well get through the next five years without a major data leak, or without a problematic subpoena for its data, but you won’t find anybody at Ars Technica putting money on that optimistic bet. Right around then, you’ll likely see more companies second-guess handing their chat logs to the Slack overlords.
Conversely, the current field of “host your own messages” chat apps, including Mattermost and Rocket.Chat, may struggle to gain a foothold in terms of awareness and installations. That could present a chicken-and-egg problem for apps that arguably provide a safer data-retention stance by default. How can they reach profitability and scale if public mindshare continues to tilt toward “let’s use Slack because we’ve heard of it”? And how can businesses trust that those smaller apps are maintained with heavy-duty security practices if they have low install rates? Hosting your own chat servers only goes so far if that installation has its own unpatched vulns, from DDoS sensitivity to data leaks.
Whatever suite of apps your team uses, a centralized chat app will likely result in thorough logging of internal communique. Depending on your work environment, that could be a potential nightmare in terms of legal liability. Some sensible workplace practices are barely gaining traction across various industries in email, such as default “confidential” tags on sensitive content, regular email archive deletion, or banning the use of email for certain topics. The informal nature of a chat app, where dozens of coworkers might treat it like a watercooler, could compound this problem.
What happens when a medical provider’s remote workplace surfaces a single patient’s confidential data, as part of a joking chat channel? What happens when embargoed information about a major corporate merger or buyout is flippantly shared among coworkers in the financial sector, and the results border on an SEC violation? More crucially than either of those, what happens when apparent human-resources violations take place, and employees face off over the intent of words and emoji?
As more companies embrace the convenience and ease of work-from-home app suites, they’re going to wrestle with the very human weirdness that emerges when people use their digital workplace to communicate in casual and potentially uncouth ways. Any company with serious designs on bolstering its remote workforce should probably prioritize its HR department’s involvement, perhaps even more than the IT team.