One of my favorite authors, Vaclav Smil, has this riff that he uses in several books. It tells of 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 the way to her office. The plot twist is that the situation he describes is set in the 1880s, not modern times.
When I first heard his riff years ago, I was struck by the familiarity of the scene Smil described. But when I re-read it during the pandemic, for the first time I got the impression that it described the past (but not the part about drinking a Coke in the middle of the workday!).
Of all the areas forever changed by the pandemic, I suspect office work will undergo 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 Smil describes — where you commute and work every day from a desk in an office — increasingly resembles a relic of the past, although it’s been the norm for over a century.
As I write this in early 2022, many companies and employees are still figuring out what their “new normal” looks like. Some have already personally resumed the full work. Others have pledged to be completely remote. Most are somewhere in between, still figuring out what works best.
I’m excited about the potential for experimentation. The expectations of traditional work have been turned upside down. I see a lot of opportunities to rethink things and find out what works and what doesn’t. While most companies will likely opt for a hybrid approach where people come into the office for part of the week, there’s a lot of flexibility about exactly what that looks like.
A prediction I made in The way to follow was that digitization would create more choices about where to live and drive many people out of cities. It looked like it wouldn’t come to fruition – until the pandemic hit. Now I’m doubling that prediction.
Some companies will decide that office time is only necessary for one week per month. This allows workers to live further away, as a long commute is easier to tolerate if you don’t usually do it. While we’ve seen some early signs of this transition, I think we’ll see a lot more in the coming decade as employers formalize remote work policies.
If you decide that employees need to be in the office less than 50% of the time, you can share your workspace with another company. Office space is a major business expense that could be cut in half. If enough companies did this, the demand for expensive office space would decrease.
I see no reason why companies should make hard decisions right away. Now is the perfect time to do an A/B testing approach. Maybe one team will try one lineup and the other team another so you can compare the results and find the right balance for everyone.
Tension will arise between managers who are more conservative about new approaches and employees who want more flexibility. Resumes in the future are likely to contain information about preferences for working out of the office.
The pandemic has forced companies to rethink workplace productivity. The boundaries between previously inconspicuous areas – brainstorming, team meetings, quick conversations in the hallway – are disappearing. The structures we thought were essential to office culture are beginning 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 over the next decade as the software industry focuses on remote work scenarios. Many of the benefits of working in the same physical space, such as meeting people at the water cooler, can be replicated with the right user interface.
If you use a platform like Teams for your work, you are already using a much more advanced product than you were in March 2020. Features such as breakout rooms, live transcription, and alternate viewing options are now standard in most teleconferencing services. Users are just starting to take advantage of the extensive features available to them.
For example, I often use the chat feature in many of my virtual meetings to add comments and ask questions. Now when I meet in person, I miss the ability to have that kind of quick interaction without distracting the group.
Ultimately, digital meetings will go beyond duplicating a face-to-face meeting. With live transcription, you can search for a topic in all meetings of your company in one day. You may be able to automatically add to-do items to your to-do list as they appear and analyze meeting video recordings to learn how to make your time more productive.
One of the biggest drawbacks of online meetings is that you can’t see who is watching where with video. Many non-verbal exchanges are lost, eliminating a human element. Switching from squares and rectangles to other “seats” makes things a little more natural, but it doesn’t fix the loss of eye contact.
This is going to change as we move participants through 3D space. A number of companies, including Meta and Microsoft, have recently unveiled their vision of the “metaverse,” 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 use 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 tech companies have been working to capture it long before the pandemic started.
When done right, attendance can not only mimic but enhance the experience of a face-to-face meeting: Imagine a meeting where engineers from a car company living on three different continents disassemble a 3D model engine of a new vehicle to to make improvements.
These kinds of encounters can be achieved through augmented reality (where you put a digital layer over our physical environment) or virtual reality (where you enter a fully immersive world). The change won’t come anytime soon, as most people don’t yet have the tools to enable this kind of recording, unlike how the move to video conferencing was made possible by the fact that many people already had PCs or phones with cameras.
Currently you can use VR goggles and gloves to control your avatar, but in the coming years more advanced and less intrusive tools will come, such as lightweight glasses and contact lenses.
Improvements in computer vision, display technology, audio and sensors will capture your facial expressions, eye contours and body language with very little lag. Think about every time you tried to agree on a thought in a heated video meeting, and how hard it was to do if you couldn’t see how people’s body language changed as they finished a thought.
A key feature of Metaverse is its use of spatial audio, which makes speech sound as if it is coming from the direction of the person speaking. True presence means the 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 join a meeting in the metaverse. It was amazing to hear how people’s voices seemed to move with them. You don’t realize how uncommon it is for the meeting audio to only come through your computer speaker until you try something else. In the Metaverse, you can bend over and have a quiet conversation with a colleague as if you were in the same room.
I’m especially excited to see how metaverse technologies enable more spontaneity with remote working. It’s the biggest thing you lose when you’re out of the office. Working from your living room isn’t exactly conducive to an unplanned conversation with your manager about your last meeting or a casual conversation with your new colleague about last night’s baseball game. But if you all work together remotely in a virtual space, you can see when someone is free and approach them for a chat.
We are approaching a threshold where technology really begins to mimic the experience of being in the office. The changes we’ve seen in the workplace are precursors to changes that I think we’ll eventually see in many areas. We are moving into a future where we are all spending more time around and in digital spaces. The 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.
Extract with permission from How to avoid the next pandemic?Bill Gates, Allen Lane.