Man in a (non) digital officeFor years, the technology world has been taking advantage of the Internet to get stuff done. People who have never met in person have been able to build incredible projects and even turn a profit before first shaking hands with their business partners. And the fruits of the open source movement wouldn’t have even been possible without this functional connectivity.

We’ve tested the waters, taken the risks, and the tools have since begun to mature. Now the rest of the world is starting to catch on to the innovative work practices of the tech world. What can employees at companies in other fields expect to see more of as the way their offices and their projects are managed changes?

Digital-First Productivity

It was a little over ten years ago when the first online project management apps, such as Basecamp, started appearing‚ as part of the cohort that ushered in the era of “Web 2.0”.

Since then the team collaboration and project management space has bloomed, and there’s an approach out there to suit the needs of any team. Asana started out by offering an approach to team collaboration that was more in the vein of task management apps than Basecamp. Trello offers group organization via kanban-style boards, and has proven to be one of the most effective apps for specific workflows, such as managing an editorial pipeline.

Much of the recent focus has been on improving workplace communications in particular. Yammer was an early contender that performed well for its time but never truly stuck, depending too much on the user interface paradigms that made social networks work, where productivity is not the goal. Podio is in a strange zone somewhere between the Yammer approach and the project management apps.

It wasn’t until Slack came along that people really started using workplace communications software with eagerness. While solutions like Yammer were in use, nobody really enjoyed using them. Today, Slack has joined the unicorn club, valued at $2.8 billion last we heard in mid-2015 and no doubt far in excess of that today.

Slack has succeeded by putting chat front and center and focusing on that experience, and making everything else companies want to do with their communication software happen via integrations. While Slack is more enjoyable to use than previous attempts to tackle the problem, some question its validity as a productivity enhancer, suggesting that it may be more distracting than helpful. Today, some projects are trying to fuse chat and functional workflows, such as OnHive.

We’ve known about these apps for years in technology and online media, but the shift toward digital-first productivity and communications is just beginning for many other companies, and it’ll be interesting to see where the perspectives and needs of those outside of the bubble take the development of these apps.

Of course, not every company is relying on other startups to enhance their communications with technology. I know of at least one tech industry outfit that runs an always-on webcam link between its two offices in different countries.

Office Management

More recently, some of the more interesting entrants have been in accounting, human resources and administration. These are not typically interesting aspects of a company, and the reason these entrants have been noteworthy is because they significantly reduce the tedium involved. Sometimes this is through outright automation, and other times through the friction reduction that is often achieved rebuilding a tool around online communication.

Xero was a mindblowing step up from the old guard when it appeared several years ago. Founded in New Zealand, Xero is online accounting software that provides real-time visualization of cashflow, makes bookkeeping substantially easier, offers robust invoicing tools, and does impressive things for payroll management.

Although it has been involved in some recent controversy, Zenefits does for human resources what Xero did for accounting. There’s some overlap with payroll features, but it also allows for the management of benefits, time, compliance, recruiting and hiring in ways that weren’t possible before.

More suitable for smaller outfits, the last few years have seen apps that tightly integrate time-tracking and invoicing mature. These are solutions that are most helpful to freelancers and contractors but often have timesheet capabilities for employee workforces.

Those who struggle to clock enough hours for lack of motivation while working remotely may find these apps particularly useful: one of their neat innovations is to allow users to visualize their progress toward their goal hours worked each week, and see how much money they are making as the timer ticks.

Two notable players in this field are Paymo and Timely.

Shifting Workforces

Freelancing has seen a tremendous rise with the maturation of web technology and the acceptance of online-first working styles by mainstream business. As many as 52 million of the United States’ 319 million people are now freelancing. That number is set to continue its growth, and it is expected that eventually the employee model will be the minority model as new ways of working continue their ascendancy.

Before the Internet, freelance work was almost entirely a word of mouth affair. But the online marketplace turned out to be a fairly suitable way of facilitating new client-freelancer relationships, and services such as Freelancer and UpWork (under various names) have dominated the space for much of that time. These marketplaces have many flaws‚ such as the infamous ‘race to the bottom’ for rates that occurs when you mix auction-style job bidding with a globalized workforce‚ but they have played an instrumental part in the astonishing rise of freelance work volume around the world.

The next frontier of change is the impact of the on-demand economy on professional services. We’ve seen it change the nature of short-term rentals and, far more dramatically, taxi services. What it will look like as applied to the broader workforce remains to be seen, but we’re seeing a few companies attempt to tackle this. Fiverr is perhaps the best known and Envato Studio, with a more specific focus on creatives, not too long ago joined it.

We’re also seeing the development of platforms such as Beeline, that help companies manage their entire non-employee workforce.

Changing office structures

Non-employee workers and their office of choice – the co-working space, at least when away from the home office – are having an impact on the way regular offices are run.

With the increase in employees who spend substantial amounts of time (but not all of it) telecommuting, companies have begun adding hotdesks to their offices. Hotdesks are shared desks that can be used on a first-come, first-serve basis or booked in advance online. Some companies are even going all in on the concept and doing away with permanently assigned desks.

Interestingly, in what seems like a manifestation of this trend taken to its most extreme limits, the incubator concept is finding interest outside of tech. Instead of the incubator serving as a place temporary space for early-stage startups to work, network and receive mentorship, professional service businesses are reducing costs by splitting office space and sharing services, kitchens, and Internet connections. If businesses were sentient beings, you’d call this having roommates.

Of course, the most existentially challenging trend for office work is the assassination of the office itself. Envato, which started as a distributed team before buckling down on office-centrism, recently reversed course and allowed employees to work from anywhere. Buffer has abandoned its offices altogether, opting for a fully remote team. As the technology that has enabled remote teams to get stuff done for years finally truly matures, this step will become more of a no-brainer to more and more organizations.

The future

As the number of tools available for a broad range of tasks balloons, users will be waiting for emergent players who can offer much of what constitutes digital office management in one place‚ and they’ll be expecting them to keep up with many of the more niche services when it comes to important, pioneering features.

One of these players already in the field is Sapenta, a platform that covers the full gamut of tools needed to run a digital office: project management, time tracking, leave requests, expense processing, travel management, and video conferencing and chat tools are all part of the package. If you’re using a bunch of the services mentioned and want to reduce overhead and consolidate, it’s well worth a look.

This post was brought to you in conjunction with productivity platform Sapenta.