Amol Sarva Talks About The Future Of Work

Knotel Co-Founder and CEO Amol Sarva may have entrepreneurial superpowers. In just the last few years, Amol has founded Virgin Mobile, created the Peek device, invented a brain-computer interface with his company Halo Neuroscience, developed the collaborative platform Knote, and most importantly, founded Knotel, the flexible office platform that’s changing the future of work.

It only makes sense that John Biggs, host of Technotopia, one of the leading technology podcasts, invited Amol onto his show for a chat. In this friendly discussion, Amol and John discuss the future of office space, the collaborative potential of more efficient systems, and the paramount importance of human interaction.

Their conversation has been edited for brevity:

John: What does the future office look like? If everyone’s correct, we’re moving towards a world of VR and where we never going into an office and sit in our stasis tanks taking food through our esophagi. Is that the way it goes? Does it go to the WeWork vision? Does the office as a cubicle farm disappear?

Amol: Here’s a really good way of framing what the future looks like. Bezos has this really nice expression where he says “People come to me all the time and ask ‘Hey Jeff, tell me whats changing. What’s gonna be different in 5 or 10 years?’ They almost never ask me what’s not going to be different.”

The more interesting question is what’s not gonna be different in ten years, because if you can figure stuff out that’s not going to be different, then you’ve got a really interesting idea.

One thing I don’t think is changing, definitely not, is that people are going to have to work together. They’re going to work together in real life, together. There’s a bunch of stuff we don’t need to do in person anymore. I don’t need to read you the results of my Q/A test on a product. There’s a lot of information transfer that we don’t need to do in person anymore. But in person is where we understand each other and work through a lot of the careful and difficult nuanced problems that we have to figure out. In the future, there will be more people working in person than even now. More hard problems are going to be solved with people together.

The second thing that’s not changing: nobody’s going to tell us that they want to spend more on their office space. I’m pretty sure no one wants the prices to be higher. Third thing, they want to spend less of their time and energy on their office. Nobody’s ever told me “I wish I could spend more time on choosing an office, on designing it, managing it, choosing the coffee.” Nobody wants that.

Two or three of the big trends are embodied there: people want to work together with less brain damage and less cost. That’s the thing Knotel responds to. it’s something that was never available before. I had to negotiate leases with landlords for every company I ever did, but you’re not gonna have to do that in the future.

John: How do you get around the lease then?

Amol: Right now, the lease is the taxi medallion of the office. The lease is a necessary evil that’s connected to the old way that the world worked. No one could trust each other, there was no information, there were not liquid marketplaces. People were unable to move easily around and landlords could not easily refill their inventory. Now, so much has changed that you no longer need to ask someone to stay for ten years to ensure that your place is full. If you run it the right way, if you run it the way we run it, your place will be full. You’ll make more money than you did on that old school model with lease.

You don’t need that taxi medallion anymore. You can move to this new and innovative model that makes landlords make more money and helps companies be more flexible. That’s possible because we’re facilitating our service through software. In most traditional real estate, you end up buying a lot of extra space. You pay for empty space for years until you need it. That means you can’t spend as much and landlords make less money.

The basic insight we had was: if we can facilitate [collaboration] and flexibility and scaling and build something truly agile, build an agile headquarters, then people will pay the right price and save money. In aggregate together, though, they’ll probably pay more and landlords will be able to make more money. We share this excess value that we create with them, so that’s the pure marketplace applied to real estate.

John: So…

Amol: There’s another thing: why is the iPhone irrelevant with offices? That is such a deep and trenchant question. When you walk into a building: you come out of the subway in Manhattan you pull out an access card, you talk to a security guard, you check on some computer that’s wired on ethernet, they type in your stuff, you get in an elevator, you press a button, you press another button, you get off on the floor, use another access card, you say hello to the receptionist, you walk down some hallway, you look for a meeting room, you start dialing physical buttons on telephone to get on a conference call.

It’s insane the amount of offline interaction required to use these physical assets. You would never accept that for anything else. You don’t get cars that way anymore, right? You just open your phone, press a button and you’re getting a car. Everything happens that way now and buildings need to work that way too. Now that we’re controlling so much-we’re around forty-five buildings and million square feet; at the end of the year there’ll be one hundred and fifty buildings, several million square feet-we can push our software into these places. You can pick up your phone and walk in without ever talking to anyone, ever touching anything. You only have the real life human interaction about real stuff, which isn’t ‘Please let me in, please call the elevator.’ All that bogus stuff does not need to be done with your fingertip.

John: So why isn’t anyone else doing this? WeWork kinda does it, but there’s still someone always sitting up front checking you in.

Amol: I don’t think this vision is something that I invented, honestly. I think that’s where the future’s going, but nobody runs enough office space today to be able to grab it by the throat and make it happen. We’re getting into the strike zone on that, where we can do it. One of the weird things about the real estate business, unlike basically any business I’ve ever worked in, is that business is so fragmented. The biggest office owner in New York has way less than ten percent of all the offices and they have none in London. The biggest owner in London has like five percent.

If you compare that to the mobile phones I’ve spent a lot of my career building, there’s a huge difference. The U.S. has four mobile operators and they all have like twenty to thirty-five percent of the market share. If you make something cool, if you’re like apple and make a great mobile phone you just pitch AT&T, then they launch the thing and everyone can get it.

In the office world, that hasn’t been possible. We’ve been doing a lot of the dirty work of hustling, putting together these properties and now finally we get to do the really cool stuff. It’s like the iPhone of buildings. Only you talk to real estate people and ask ‘What’s the iPhone of buildings?’ and they just think of a glass tower.

John: They think the elevator where you type the number in before you get on the elevator it’s a big deal. But, ok, if we’re saying that in the future the need for human interaction is not going to go away, what’s going to keep it? We’re expecting a destruction of most jobs. A lot of lonely jobs. you’re gonna lose a lot of drivers, you’re gonna lose a lot of programmers. Why do we still need to come together as humans?

Amol: I’ll tell you something that isn’t rooted in my Knotel work but is rooted in some of my work on technology and futurism. Every time there’s an innovation…when they made the ATM everyone thought you won’t need bank tellers anymore. Instead, you end up with an industry that’s way bigger. You take the transaction cost and the friction out of that business and end up with way more bank branches and more loan officers and account managers. You no longer need someone to make change for a hundred dollar bill, which is great. Now, people are giving you advice and helping you do the more complicated stuff.

That’s the lesson of history. It is very likely that automated driving, for example, will end putting way more people in the logistics, delivery and transportation businesses. Those are the people who will help you figure out what you want, be nice to you, help you be comfortable, help you land in a place you want to go to. There’s gonna be trucks rolling 24/7, doing all kinds of stuff. If you think Amazon two-day shipping is interesting, there’s gonna be a truck outside your house before you even think about what you want. That truck is gonna deliver what you want and some friendly person will hand it to you. I think that many industries are actually going to grow in the total labor requirements. That’s the first point.

The second point: there aren’t enough people. Even with the power of automation and productivity gains, the American population is going to be trending down after 2050. It used to be the American population would increase at like two or three percent a year. One of the big drivers of our economy has been more people doing more stuff. If we want to keep getting richer at two or three percent a year for another thirty years, there are a lot of jobs to do. There are so many jobs that the robots will not take. There’s not even enough robots, there’s not enough productivity. So there are going to be be a lot more people doing a lot more stuff. It’s gonna be higher order, more complicated, more creative, more sensitive social and emotional stuff and those are jobs you’re going to do in person.

John: Sounds good. So what does your day look like twenty years from now?

Amol: I’m going to spend a lot of time looking at screens, processing huge amounts of information. I read an interesting thing about Charles Darwin a few years ago. Charles Darwin, the great scientist, co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, used to write three thousand letters a year. There’s three hundred something days a year so he wrote roughly ten a day. That was once an impressive statistic. I know that you, John, delete your entire inbox everyday because you’re getting way more than three hundred letters per day. Me, I probably hit send on several hundred messages a day and I see more than that. I’m probably moving back and forth something like five hundred to one thousand messages a day. In another twenty years, maybe that will be like one hundred thousand a day. Maybe I’m in touch with thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Say we’re networked together through some electronic telepathy we’ve invented and are able to collaborate at a huge scale. That’s gonna be really cool, so I am going to spend a lot of time in touch with people who are not in front of me, but when I am in front of people, we’re gonna have the super high bandwidth, super rich, very trust-based heavy rapport required for problem solving that is really hard to do when you’re not with people.

John: That’s an interesting point. If we have the right kind of user interface and the right kind of bandwidth we could as a group of humans work together on big problems.

Amol: It’s exciting. I know I can’t figure everything out myself. If I only had enough time and connectivity to other smart people in the world you we could figure out breakthrough ideas. that Right now we’re spending too much time on the subway, on setting up the conference call, just doing a bunch of dumb stuff. There is much potential.

John: Where can people find out what you’re up to these days?

Amol: I write a lot on my blog blog. If you type in you can see all the things I’m working on. if anyone needs an agile headquarters, I’m happy to help you. is that superpower. is that halo product.