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The future of work—new paradigms, locations, and possibilities

By Susan Lahey

Published July 29, 2020
Last updated July 29, 2020

The workplace paradigm has been pretty stagnant for about 100 years: 9-to-5 Monday through Friday; come into the office whether you need to or not; if you have kids or a life, please keep their existence reduced to some photos on your desk.... Sure, there have been some changes and many experiments—and the proliferation of tech has definitely stretched the hours past 5 p.m. But many companies didn’t stray far from the default settings. Then came COVID-19.

Suddenly companies that believed they couldn’t operate remotely found that they not only could, but they must. Not just for a few months, but potentially for 18 months or more. They might even have to prepare for a series of pandemics or illnesses unleashed by climate change. So it’s time to figure out a new way to work.

The first step was to get everyone on Zoom and make sure employees have the necessary technology, but what about after that? What’s next?

Back to the future

David Duncan and Scott D. Anthony, senior partners of the consulting firm Innosight, wrote an article for their company website that recommends a strategy for the post-COVID world called “Future Back.” With Future Back you pick a point of time in the future—which might only be 12 months away in strange times like these—look at underlying trends, and come to a consensus about what the world is going to look like at that future date. You then set an aspiration for the company you want to be in that future environment, including financial targets and broad strategic choices about where to play, where not to play, and how to compete and win.

“Finally, you work backwards from that future vision to determine what, specifically, needs to be done today to begin closing the gap between future aspirations and present realities,” the article states. This process can be applied to pretty much every organization within the business.

The first step was to get everyone on Zoom and make sure employees have the necessary technology, but what about after that? What's next?

Future Back is just one of the lenses and models Duncan offers to help leaders envision and prepare for the future and the unknown. He’s co-written two books, Competing Against Luck and Building a Growth Factory, and is a big fan of applying the “jobs theory” lens to figure out what to do in uncertain times. Jobs theory asserts that people don’t buy goods and services, they hire companies to get specific jobs done. To know what you need to do or make, companies need to understand what those jobs are. Jobs theory works to clarify the goals and strategies in a lot of different arenas.

“What are the jobs people were trying to get done by the previous models, and what’s changed today with respect to the circumstances they’re in?” Duncan posed when I interviewed him. “What’s interesting about COVID is it’s forcing everybody to experiment with radically different solutions that they wouldn’t have tried without this extraordinary crisis. What we’ll be evaluating going forward is, if COVID went away tomorrow, which of these things are they going to sustain—not going back to the old solutions?”

A lot of it, he said, should be around jobs theory. What is the job you have to get done and what is the best way to make it happen? It may be that a lot of the old paradigm gets dumped.

[Related read: The reality of uncertainty: Tim Crawford on how CIOs are thinking about the ‘next normal’]

Office space: function over form

Duncan said leaders he’s talked to in recent months are finding a lot of advantages to the new remote world. Travel costs, for example, are way down.

“People used to make day trips all the time: you fly to a meeting in Chicago and you fly home. It’s not productive. It wreaks havoc on your work/life balance, your health. People are discovering a lot of that stuff isn’t necessary. The new equilibrium will involve a lot less business travel.”

Business travel, along with working together in an office, have been popular because it was believed that sharing a physical space was key to collaboration, innovation, and culture. Some experts suggest that the workplace of the future should still have at least one office where people can gather to tackle a project, for example. But it may be that the billions of square footage of offices and meeting spaces aren’t actually the best way to get things done.

For one thing, they’re not great for the environment. The Center for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Michigan estimated (before COVID) that by 2050 there would be 126 billion square feet of commercial space in the U.S. Commercial buildings, the study said, consumed 18 percent of all energy in 2018. They also guzzle water and are the reason for lots of demolition waste, among other environmental hazards.

But it may be that the billions of square footage of offices and meeting spaces aren't actually the best way to get things done.

Global Workplace Analytics estimates companies could save more than $11,000 per employee per year by not having an office, plus there would be huge gains for the environment if most employees worked from home most of the time. This results from:

  • Reduced costs for rent, utilities, office supplies, janitorial services and more
  • Increased productivity
  • Reductions in employee expenses for childcare, eldercare, transportation
  • Tax breaks for employees with home offices

They also estimate it would reduce greenhouse gases by 54 million tons and save almost 90,000 people from traffic-related injury or death.

And if offices do make a comeback, an article in The Architect’s Newspaper suggests that an evolution toward healthier, lower-stress workplaces may have gotten a big boost from COVID-19. Melissa Marsh, founder of social research and workplace strategy organization PLASTARC and senior managing director of occupant experience at global real estate services provider Savills, was quoted as saying that wellness, sustainability, and “purposeful occupancy” would lead to more natural ventilation and lighting, biophilic design elements, and a workplace culture focused more on flexibility, self-care, and stress management.

[Related read: Rising to the challenge of remote leadership]

Brent Capron, interior design director at Perkins and Will’s New York office, also weighed in, saying “I would love to see us rethinking: Is there an architectural model that isn’t a center-core building…? Can we find ways to cut more holes in existing buildings and turn non-atrium buildings into atrium buildings? And can we bring back operable windows…? If we have this glut of commercial office buildings, let’s cut into it. Let’s convert it and open it up.”

A similar idea is that of the Supergalaxy, proposed by a pair of architects in San Francisco. This would turn three floors of a skyscraper into an outdoor space with baffles hanging from the ceiling to buffer the wind. People could work and live in the enclosed spaces above and below and hang out together in the open space. In San Francisco, where the average temperature is around 60 degrees, that could work.

“Businesses right now are completely rethinking their relationship to their staff,” said Jason Kelly Johson, one of the architects, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “Companies are going to try to bring together people for short intensive periods, safely...you will bring in 10% of your workforce, then move them back to their home office. You will clean the space and have another group back in. What Supergalaxy does is to provide an open space that is highly technologically mediated, and allows for fluid communication.”

And it would help the main reason to have a building at all: fostering organizational culture.

“The one thing I wonder about is how do you create and maintain company culture when nobody’s getting together?” Duncan asked, “because a culture is formed by people going through a set of shared experiences together.” People embody the culture and those shared experiences forge that connection in new employees, he said. So that will be a new problem to solve around the impact on culture, unity, and a shared sense of mission. People will still hunger for the experience of going into an office and being part of a community.

"The one thing I wonder about is how do you create and maintain company culture when nobody's getting together?" — David Duncan

Endless Zoom meetings just don’t have the same impact. Digital meetings make people tired. And an article in Harvard Business Review revealed that people don’t act the same in online meetings as in person. When people are on group calls, the article said, they generally just “gaze” at their own faces. They also tend not to listen as well because they’re multitasking the whole meeting. So maybe remote work of the future will inspire some new tech, like the holograms in the last Avengers movie.

“One of the areas of accelerated development and exploration will be VR and AR,” Duncan said. “You could set it up so that you’re on a virtual conference on a wall-size screen and the other half of the conference table is in a similar situation but on the other side of the world.”

If there’s a way to fill the void with technology, tech companies will find it.

[Related read: Work-from-home productivity tips for the long haul]

Making space for childcare

Coronavirus has also made it clear we still operate according to the 1950s model when it comes to childcare. The current system is based on the days when the man worked and the woman stayed home and cared for the children. Now childcare has been replaced by schools or daycare centers (in the U.S. most people can’t afford nannies), but the concept of putting the workplace first remains. Being a parent and being an employee shouldn’t be incompatible in the 21st century. Just as we expect to give employees time to eat and sleep and go on vacation and take a couple days off, we should carve out time for them to be parents.

Parenting still isn’t divided quite equally. Though many more men are stepping up to do their part with house chores and childcare, a study by the Boston Consulting Group found that women still spend 15 hours per week more on household chores and childcare than men.

A 2019 National Working Families Report by Parents At Work in Australia surveyed more than 6,000 parents and caregivers, and detailed the physical and mental health challenges that many working parents suffer:

“The survey found 62% of respondents were finding it difficult to manage their own physical and mental health as they struggled to juggle work and caring responsibilities, with one-third noting that the juggle was contributing to stress and tension in their relationships with partners and children. Around half of female parents and carers said the juggle was leading to considerable stress.”

Just as we expect to give employees time to eat and sleep and go on vacation and take a couple days off, we should carve out time for them to be parents.

Designing work life for human beings—with more flexibility, longer deadlines, and a lot fewer meetings—should be one of the big changes to come out of this extended COVID season, and not just for families with children. Allyson Zimmermann, a Zurich-based executive director for Catalyst, a non-profit that works to improve corporate workplaces for women, spoke in a BBC Worklife article about the need to think more about people’s personal circumstances, whether that’s being alone, taking care of older family members or older disabled children, or managing long-distance relationships.

“Everyone has their own experiences,” says Zimmerman. “We have to get curious and ask questions and challenge assumptions of what the ‘home’ looks like.”

[Related read: Harness the power of parenting at work]

The end of work as we know it

For some, the future of work discussion goes much broader and includes climate change and politics and the reality that a Universal Basic Income may be required. Other diseases may come our way that make it unlikely we’ll work together in the way we once did. And robotics and AI may be a logical substitute for some kinds of work that can’t be done remotely, enabling production to scale and reduce face-to-face interaction. But what happens to those employees? This type of retooling of the workforce requires a much larger plan and safety net and, according to an article from the World Economic Forum, many countries have already implemented a de facto Universal Basic Income. Sure, it’s controversial and open to mis-use, but there’s room in this idea to open up time and space for people to focus on wellness, and art, and gardening.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to really look at whether the way we work is the best way for humans. It’s a chance to throw the door wide open and consider other ways we can get the job done, and to evaluate whether we’re stuck in antiquated paradigms. It would be nice to emerge from this difficult time with work lives that are more empathetic, fair, fulfilling and creative.