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Starbucks, Google and the future of work

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A generation from now, the idea of going to the office may become very quaint.

The “officeless office” and the “virtual corporation” have been a topic of conversation for years, and recent trends such as the emergence of co-working as a lifestyle choice seem to be accelerating the pace of this change. So, get ready for the next step in the disruption of the traditional workplace: new innovations for mobile-first workers that will blur the line between work time, downtime, travel time and in-between time, assuming those lines aren’t blurred for you already.

Take, for example, what’s happening with Starbucks. The company, which became the poster child for the whole “third place” movement nearly two decades ago, recently announced a series of moves that could make the death of the traditional workplace even more of a reality. Starbucks recently announced a partnership with Google that will bring high-speed Wi-Fi to over 7,000 Starbucks locations around the nation, giving coffee drinkers Internet connectivity that’s 10 times faster than the existing speeds AT&T provides at Starbucks locations today. And, notes Google manager Kevin Lo, in places where Google Fiber already exists, Google will ramp up those Internet speeds even higher, to 100 times over existing Wi-Fi speeds.

At the same time, Starbucks is experimenting with new Powermat wireless charging stations at some locations in Boston and Silicon Valley. This move is a no-brainer – keeping our mobile devices powered all day as we ask them to do more is becoming increasingly vital. While there may not be any sociological or anthropological studies done yet on the role of wireless charging stations in fostering social interactions, almost everyone has stumbled across what at first seems like a very strange tribal ceremony – a bunch of strangers huddled around a power outlet, heads down as they watch their tiny screens getting a power boost. If Starbucks finds a way to transform this communal behavior in a unique way, the Starbucks Powermat could become the mobile equivalent of today’s office water cooler.

While Starbucks stands to disrupt the traditional office environment, mobile-first companies such as Quip promise to revolutionize how we think about office productivity by doing away with the desktop entirely. Quip, which was founded by former Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, has already lined up $15 million in VC financing to disrupt companies such as Microsoft in the office-productivity marketplace. If, currently, you use Microsoft Word to compose documents on your desktop or laptop and share them via email, Quip wants to make it possible to compose “beautiful documents on any device” – including your iPhone – and share them by messaging your friends. As soon as you login to Quip, you’re asked to start collaborating with friends on documents and then share your work in real-time.

So, when the dust settles, who’s the big winner? It would be easy to say Starbucks or a new mobile-first company like Quip, but the real winner may end up being Google. In both of the above scenarios – faster Internet connections and mobile-first productivity that integrates with your social networks – Google could play an important role. In one, Google becomes your Internet service provider taking over from AT&T.  In the other, Quip makes it a requirement to login with an account from Google, not Twitter or Facebook or Microsoft. This makes Quip a natural way for Google to extend the reach of its Google+ social network, turning your Google+ “Circles” into mini-work groups.

As with any shift in society, such as the rise of the mobile “officeless office,” you can choose to view the glass as half-full or half-empty. You can pine for the demise of the cubicle and corner office, seeing it as a further erosion of middle-class life in America. Or, you can take the long-term perspective of a futurist like Ray Kurzweil and see the “officeless office” as the beginning of a new mobile era in which we are enabled to think more and learn more, doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.