With people, place, time, and culture suddenly distributed, new questions are arising about the purpose of the office, flexible working, remote working, corporate location geometries and what difference location, context and experience makes to the value created and received.
This points to new paradigms of work, as we understand that work gets done not just in physical spaces but in mental spaces and in the cloud.
The key higher order question is around the human experience and the maximal realisation of human potential in these reconfigured paradigms and spaces – physical and virtual. This could rewrite the contract not just of where, when, and how we work but of why we work, for whom and with whom.
Companies who understand and prepare will be best equipped to harness that potential.
From our research we have noticed that while many companies are talking about hybrid working (@Office and @Anywhere), their focus remains largely on reconfiguring the physical building spaces and/or IT infrastructure tools, rather than designing for the employee experience @Anywhere. With many companies reducing real-estate and/or occupancy saturation, what might the daily work experience be like for the other 20-50% of employees who are not @Office on a given day?
Some key things that will need to be addressed are….
Intentionally curating the physical, social, and psychological health of employees.
Wherever you work, ergonomy matters (posture/ screen fatigue), as does social bonding online and possibilities for face-to-face (with colleagues/ non colleagues). Preventing burnout and social isolation must be prioritised when away from the social hub of congregation spaces.
Meanwhile new opportunities can emerge working @Anywhere – greater work/life balance, more localised social capital, diverse hiring from anywhere. Spaces and moods can be easily curated or personalised via AR/VR and projection technology. New tribes and affinity groups can be spun up inside and outside the firm across locations, new access to global cultural experiences can be curated and informally shared.
So far, the technology has not matched the face to face social experience in the round – 3D physical, pyscho-social, and behavioural cues are inadequately rendered online, not everyone wants a VR headset and serendipity/casual collisions have been replicated poorly. This will likely improve over time however, as more human and behavioural dimensions get designed in, over and above the pure functional connectivity.
Our Humanness Needs Amplification:
There have been persistent trends pre-Covid such as technology acceleration outpacing humans, the rise of robot co-workers, and work- especially knowledge work- performed increasingly in mental and digital spaces. The radical shift to remote working has exacerbated the adoption, the pervasiveness, and the need for technology as an enabler. However, this is precisely when we need human-first versus technology-first principles.
We need ‘humane technology’ to make our digital world delightful, diverse, meaningful, seamless, and more equal to our in-office experience. We need to give ‘moments that matter’ to our employees as we would to our customers, at every omni-channel touchpoint, wherever they are.
We need to put humans at the centre of every question and decision. Considering what Maslow and Herzberg have taught us about human motivation, what really matters is why you work, how it makes you feel and what value/self-actualisation you bring. In the unwritten psychological contract, it is no longer about task for time for money, but about a values exchange. It’s more about meaning than money. Therefore, giving employees agency about where, when, with whom they work, and cultivating a psychological climate of safety, trust, empowerment, meaningful work, and inspiration, will enlist their best selves. Therein lies the value for employers and employees.
Tackling the tech to enable work from anywhere at a functional/ technical level is where many companies are at right now. However, the real value lies in enabling people and their unique potential.
My world is Phygital (–physical & digital integrated):
Intelligent spaces and objects will orient and enhance me. Buildings will be touchless and recognise me, and will be ‘living’ and aware of occupancy, usage, optimal light, and temperature etc. My coffee cup might tell me when others in my network are free for coffee. From anywhere I can connect to the office in the cloud, I can send/ holoport my avatar to meet you. I can curate personalised spaces and moods for the kind of gathering and tone I want.
In the middle of this, there will be concerns about transparency, privacy, security of data, and phygital equality - such as getting equal voice and career capital at meetings whether remote or in-person. Activity and colleagues in the cloud often feel invisible, ‘out of sight’ and therefore ‘out of mind, even if we leave endless digital footprints. Or, conversely, there is too much data overload that we cannot usefully translate. However, relevant data needs to be translated to rich insights, intentionally made visible, curated, and purposeful e.g. haptic nudges, phygital objects, visibility of personal network tiers.
Data analytics has long been used by HR for workforce planning, sentiment analysis etc. In the future data could be made to work better for employees, not just on a practical work level but also generating interesting cultural currency and capital in the ‘cloud office’ and physical office, via rich data visualisation on ambient screens and smart apps. For example, who is in the office now? Who in my personalised network is available in next 2 hours for a chat? What kind of learning activity are my team doing – how do I compare/ am I missing out? What topics are engaging colleagues in the last month? Will Maria be in the co-work hub today? Am I getting as much exercise as my colleagues?
Employees may want trade-offs/returns for giving access to their data and clear boundaries around usage. Meanwhile employers can use individuals’ data and preferences to personalise employee experiences, and in aggregate to make culture and behaviours more manifest. Interesting real-time data can reinforce culture with bottom up engagement and with employees interacting with the data.
In the new future of work there are more questions than answers. The playbook has yet to be written. But we are sitting amid a vast remote work experiment that is so far working reasonably well, despite the suddenness, and it’s pointing to new possibilities. This presents a tremendous opportunity to run a whole suite of experiments that can get us ahead of the curve as the new paradigms play out.