It's March 1982 and the computing world is dealing with a new buzzword or "fad" called the office of the future.

It's a radical shift, promoting open plan office space and "furniture systems ... that can be arranged in different ways to fit different work needs," according to an article in Australian Business Computer magazine.

These systems house some major innovations – take office lighting, for example, where lights are "being built into work stations rather than in the ceiling".

The office of the future also boasts ergonomic furniture, some of it designed with CAD software, which is becoming "a regular tool of the more avant-garde space planners".

However, it's a suite of emerging technology systems that stand to provide employers with the most productivity benefits.

Technology known as "conferencing" is finding acceptance courtesy of a new wave of "participative management". A subset of this, called videoconferencing – "holding meetings simultaneously in several locations, with the participants viewing each other via television screens" – has the futurists particularly excited.

The prospect of electronic mail is also exciting, as is the advent of speech recognition software. "The prospects are improving of someday being able to speak into a microphone and having one's words appear on a video screen," the article states.

There are challenges to adoption – including the availability of telecommunications networks and convincing management to drive change from the top.

"The office of the future concept is not just the automated office or the electronic office; rather it is one in which new technologies give senior management the opportunity to consider entirely new approaches as to how to best organise, manage and control the enterprise," the article states.

"In most cases, nowadays, technology stops at the manager's door.

"But if all these new technologies are aimed at helping a manager communicate, he must participate personally in the communications process.

"He cannot continue to operate as his predecessors have for the past 50 years, through secretaries and staff assistants. He must participate personally."

To win management over, the article suggests that the technology be "humanised".

"We must use the power of technology to make machines more acceptable to people," the article implores. "It can be done."

The benefit of hindsight

Over 30 years later, we are still having similar conversations, albeit that the mobility of computers and the workforce is starting to be reflected in office design.

Many companies are shifting to activity based working, where employees no longer have assigned desks or phones but can take advantage of a variety of different standing and sitting spaces.

Some things didn't turn out as planned. Email – which promised to make communications faster than regular postal services – is now seen as a productivity killer.

The promise of the open plan office in 1982 also has a downside: the noise from co-workers, and having co-workers that hover near your desk, have become major productivity inhibitors.