One of my favorite authors, Vaclav Smil, has this riff that he uses in several books. It tells you about a young woman who wakes up and drinks a cup of instant coffee before taking the subway to work. When she arrives at the office, she takes an elevator to the tenth floor and stops to grab a Coca-Cola from the vending machine on her way to her office. The plot dispute is that the situation he describes takes place in the 1880s, not the modern era.
When I first heard his riff years ago, I was struck by how familiar the scene Smile described. But when I read it again during the pandemic, I got the impression for the first time that it described the past (but not the part about getting a Coke in the middle of the workday!).
Of all the areas that have been forever changed by the pandemic, I suppose office work will experience the most drastic change.
The pandemic disrupted work in virtually every industry, but office workers were in the best position to take advantage of digital tools. The situation that Smil describes – where you commute every day and work from a desk in an office – looks more and more like a relic of the past, even though it has been the norm for more than a century.
As I write this in early 2022, many companies and workers are still figuring out what their “new normal” looks like. Some have already resumed full-time work in person. Others have promised to be completely remote. Most are somewhere in between and always trying to figure out what works best.
I’m excited about the potential for experimentation. Expectations of traditional work have been turned upside down. I see plenty of opportunities to rethink things and find out what works and what doesn’t. While most companies are likely to opt for a hybrid approach where people come into the office part of the week, there is great flexibility as to what exactly it looks like.
A prediction I made in The road to follow was that digitization would create more choices about where to live and drive many people away from the cities. It looked like it would not happen until the pandemic hit. Now I double that prediction.
Some companies will decide that office hours are only required for one week per month. This will allow employees to live further away, as a long commute is easier to tolerate if you do not do it most of the time. Although we have seen some early signs of this transition, I think we will see many more in the coming decade as employers formalize teleworking policies.
If you decide that employees should be in the office less than 50% of the time, you can share your work area with another company. Office space is a large business expense that can be halved. If enough companies did this, the demand for expensive office space would be reduced.
I see no reason for companies to make firm decisions right away. This is the perfect time to take an A / B test method. Maybe one team is trying a setup while another team is trying another so you can compare results and find the right balance for everyone.
There will be tensions between managers who tend to be more conservative in relation to new approaches and employees who want more flexibility. CVs in the future are likely to include information on preferences for working outside the office.
The pandemic has forced companies to rethink productivity in the workplace. The boundaries between once low-key areas – brainstorming, team meetings, quick conversations in the hallway – are collapsing. The structures we thought were essential to the office culture have begun to evolve, and the changes will only intensify in the coming years as companies and employees adapt to new, permanent ways of working.
I think most people will be surprised at the pace of innovation in the next decade as the software industry focuses on telecommuting scenarios. Many of the benefits of working in the same physical space – such as meeting people at the water cooler – can be recreated with the right user interface.
If you use a platform like Teams for work, you are already using a much more sophisticated product than in March 2020. Features such as group rooms, live transcription and alternative viewing options are now standard in most teleconferencing services. Users are just beginning to take advantage of the rich features available to them.
For example, I often use the chat feature in many of my virtual meetings to add comments and ask questions. When I meet in person now, I miss the ability to have that kind of high-speed interaction without distracting the group.
Eventually, digital meetings will evolve beyond just duplicating a personal meeting. Live transcription will one day allow you to search for a topic in all your company meetings. You may be able to automatically add action points to your to-do list when they come up and analyze video of a meeting to learn how to make your time more productive.
One of the biggest disadvantages of online meetings is that video does not let you see who is watching where. Many non-verbal exchanges are lost, eliminating a human element. Switching from squares and rectangles to other “seating” arrangements makes things a little more natural, but it does not solve the loss of eye contact.
This is about to change as we move participants through the 3D space. A number of companies, including Meta and Microsoft, have recently unveiled their vision for the “metaverset”, a digital world that both replicates and enhances our physical reality. (The term was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite modern science fiction writers.)
The idea is that you need a 3D avatar – a digital representation of yourself – to meet people in a virtual space that mimics the feeling of being together in real life. This feeling is often referred to as “presence”, and many technology companies have been working to capture it long before the pandemic began.
When done right, participation can not only copy the experience of a personal meeting, but enhance it: imagine a meeting where engineers from a car company living on three different continents disassemble a 3D model engine of a new vehicle to make improvements.
This type of encounter can be achieved through augmented reality (where you overlaid a digital layer on top of our physical surroundings) or virtual reality (where you step into a completely immersive world). The change is not coming right away because most people do not yet have the tools to enable this type of recording, unlike how the transition to video conferencing was made possible by the fact that many people already had PCs or phones with cameras.
Currently, you can use VR glasses and gloves to control your avatar, but more sophisticated and less intrusive tools – like lightweight glasses and contact lenses – will come over the next few years.
Improvements in computer vision, screen technology, sound and sensors will capture your facial expressions, eye contours and body language with very little delay. Think about every time you tried to chim in with a thought in a heated video conference, and how hard it was to do when you could not see how people’s body language changed when they finished a thought.
A key feature of Metaverse is the use of spatial sound, which makes speech sound as if it is actually coming from the person speaking. True presence means that technology captures what it feels like to be in a room with someone, not just what it looks like.
In the fall of 2021, I was able to put on a headset and attend a meeting in the meta verse. It was great to hear how people’s voices seemed to move with them. You do not realize how unusual it is that the meeting sound only comes through your computer’s speaker before you try anything else. In Metaverset you will be able to lean over and have a quiet conversation with a colleague as if you were in the same room.
I am particularly excited to see how metaverse technologies will enable more spontaneity with teleworking. It’s the biggest thing you lose when you’m out of the office. Working from your living room is not exactly conducive to having an unplanned chat with your manager about your last meeting or initiating a casual conversation with your new colleague about yesterday’s baseball game. But if you all work together externally in a virtual space, you will be able to see when someone is available and contact them for a chat.
We are approaching a threshold where technology is really starting to copy the experience of being in the office. The changes we have seen in the workplace are precursors to changes that I think we will see in many areas over time. We are moving towards a future where we all spend more time around and in digital spaces. Metaverse may seem like a new concept now, but as technology improves, it will evolve into what feels more like an extension of our physical world.
Excerpts with permission from How to prevent the next pandemicBill Gates, Allen Lane.