Your Workplace Has Exploded And Is Accelerating Outward

January 24, 2021

A few days ago, I entered Clubhouse, the latest addiction of all social network hypebeasts, where I found myself in a room with 70 strangers, including a group of speakers in which one woman who—instead of commenting on a question—burst into tears, sobbing about how lonely she felt.

The hosts gently allowed space for her to weep, then suggested she might want to give herself some space from the room and app, entirely, for her sanity. All of us listeners were not permitted to voice, chat, or emoji-react—we were asked to stay present but remain remote.

I felt perplexed and left, mortified by my intrusion into something so intimate, and instead of enduring with compassion, hunting for the next stimulus. This, our craving for sensation (and maybe, to some extent, sensationalism) and stimulation, has reached a level of overwhelmingness that welcomes any chance to escape, amid a lot of “overwork, overdoing, and underliving.”

Present but strangely remote, remote but strangely present, amid social media micro-dosing, smart cushions monitoring “your health,” and socially awkward watercooler talk online and offline—this will be work and life, but especially our work, for the foreseeable future. No one may be telling us hybrid nomads what to do anymore, but such freedom doesn’t always feel like liberation. Some days, especially when contemplating the myriad of problems worldwide, it only leads to paralysis: What the hell am I supposed to do now?

But here’s what is clearer everyday:

Many of us found ourselves stuck in (n)one-dimensional places. But we can fling ourselves into more multi-dimensional ones. The future of work is the future of experiences, and the future workplace will be a multiverse workplace.

We may be physically present, or not, but remote as intellectual, psychic, or spiritual condition? That’s unsustainable. At work, we’re going to have to feel and be felt, to be curators and submit to being curated.

What will this look (and sound) like? Here are some new ideas.

—Monika Jiang

Multiverse Tools

Embodied or disembodied? It’s getting hard to tell

Future office spaces integrate hands-free technology—from facial recognition-powered entryways to brain-computer interface glasses that let us access information with our minds. In our new multiverse workplace, we may be mostly alone, working from home, but collaborating like mad, VR headsets in place. Companies such as BNP Paribas Real Estate use the XR platform Spatial to meet in virtual rooms. “I hopped into the meeting [and] could teleport around the room…and grab objects freely. Instead of just being a disembodied video stuck on the wall, I was an active participant in the space,” reports tech writer Devindra Hardawar.

Beyond such a gamified, playful environment, the question remains what it will take to foster emotionally intelligent rooms, particularly virtually, that let us feel “the tension in the room” (or the elephant) and help us level-up our senses.

Tech for the socially oblivious?

While XR technology makes remote meetings more “realistic,” can we make them more honest? How about AI that analyzes body posture and facial expression to determine engagement levels during a video call? Critics say this is too intrusive, but the data could help meeting facilitators gauge how well they’re doing. The technology could also manage meeting flow by alerting an attendee when it’s time to chime in, or someone else to be quiet. Apps like Time To Talk aim to combat gender bias by tracking meeting contributions in real time to determine average speaking time. The Women Interrupted app tracks how many times a woman is interrupted by a man while she’s speaking.

Meanwhile Cisco Sub-Saharan Africa GM Garsen Naidu’s team is hoping to break language barriers with real-time transcription that translates the language being spoken in a video call to one of 10 other languages. When applied with intention and the right context, as some of these developments show, tech tools can help activate our sensitivity and cultural sensibility towards one another.

But, as always, the danger with “delegate-to-digital” solutions is that they may lead to an abdication of our inherently human powers.

We may lose the quality amidst all the data. As we quantify ourselves, we fall prey to the same old empiricism that alienated us from what author Minna Salami calls “Sensuous Knowledge” or what Buddhists would call “unconditioned reality.”

And even Clubhouse, which feels genuine and raw at present, presents the same ethical quandaries that all other digital platforms wrestle with: consider the huge amount of data the app is collecting, and how it can possibly use emotion AI and voice to analyze moods (and even whether a person is lying!). How transparent will Clubhouse be about their data intelligence? Will the audio rooms be black boxes? Who will still have a voice on the platform once power-users have won the attention wars?

Virtual (even non-human) help desks

Meanwhile Boston Consulting Group describes “a large insurer whose…. managers created virtual team sessions in which agents encourage one another as they make phone and video sales calls: They work on mute but watch one another. They dance on screen, clap, and video high-five when a colleague completes a sale. They can also raise their hand and talk privately with their team leader to obtain just-in-time coaching.”

Businesses are also battling burnout with sensor technology. Desk chairs and computers monitor vital signs, letting users know when it’s time to take a break. The online therapy platform Spill is developing tools for businesses to “create a more psychologically considerate workplace” with their mental health support services offered via Slack.

Next up? Prevention, not (just) treatment.

Multiverse Spaces

Office as creative spark factory

We won’t go to the office to be productive. We’ll go to enliven our senses and have spontaneous social interactions that spark new ideas.

Ziona Strelitz, founder and director of ZZA Responsive User Environments, argues that designing for knowledge transfer within the workplace requires spaces that “facilitate interaction—spaces to convene, present, discuss, and chat” first and foremost. In a hybrid workplace, collaboration and community-building will have priority.

At Microsoft’s new Herzliya campus in Israel, the shifting, communal flow of urban life is hardwired into a design that includes customizable work spaces, a prayer room, music room, a gym, and children’s play areas. “A city is a place of intersection,” says architect Vered Gindi:

“You are surrounded by people, activities, and culture. You are part of something bigger than yourself. You are not just going to work; you are experiencing a lifestyle.”

TechCrunch reports that in a hybrid work scenario, “the office transforms from a place where you have to be, to somewhere you want to be, some of the time.” Our human need for nature may be satisfied in a biophilic designed space, and we feel emotionally secure knowing our auto assistant will anticipate our every need. Because as UX Designer Sophie Kleber notes,

“When computers have personalities, humans want to be their friends."

Neither here nor there

WeWork India plans to focus on Work from Near Home (WFNH) spaces. An idea echoed in The New York Times: “Post-Covid...a Brooklyn or Queens resident who previously commuted to Manhattan may opt to work several days a week in a shared space within a 10-minute walk from home. Some large employers are already experimenting with satellite offices in the suburbs of cities in which they already have a downtown headquarters.”

Dispersed office hubs may be what the coworking industry was waiting for. As companies manage a distributed workforce, there’s an audience again who needs an office, but not for 365 days a year. Dropbox, which is going fully remote, will use smaller studio spaces for team and community-building.

And then there’s co-living, which is more about “home instead of home” than the hotel catchphrase, “home away from home.” Co-living adds a community aspect to digital nomadism that people are willing to pay for.

The co-living market potential in Europe and the U.S. is estimated to reach $550 billion over the next 10 years.

In fact, there’s now a digital nomad village in Madeira.

Multiverse Orgs

Hybrid nomads are in the house

In the new working order, in-house employees will work remotely sometimes and in the office other times. Employees will expect to have that option, and companies will adapt to ensure processes run smoothly regardless of where the work is happening.

Leaders will be challenged to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of remote and onsite workers because, as professor Linda Hill of Harvard Business School says, a lingering proximity bias makes people think office employees produce more than those working off-site.

What comes after location flexibility? Well, time flexibility, of course. Allowing employees to work when it suits them leads to higher performance and better quality.

Divide and conquer, then disperse

Imagine a skeleton staff of full-time workers, supplemented with freelancers as projects ebb and flow, and a few part-timers thrown in. It could evolve into a real juggling act. One study found that 32% of companies surveyed are already replacing full-time workers with contingent ones.

One estimate: Up to 80% of the workforce could be freelancers by 2030.

The tricky thing is that companies and this fluid workforce will need to agree on a new social contract in terms of monetary remuneration and social security benefits.

Multiverse Skills

Managers as experience designers? Yes, please!

When companies are all using Zoom or some digital playing field, talent will be drawn to those organizations that can offer not just a job, but also experiences on-the-job. When the future of work is the future of experiences, managers and leaders must assume the qualities of conference curators and experience designers.

Julius Dreyer, chief executive of PlayaMedia, invited his team to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony. As a result one employee realized she needed to slow down and reduced her work-week to four days. Another employee quit smoking. Dreyer is very happy with how it all turned out:

“To me, that was such a proud and happy moment because something on the retreat has opened up this other side and there is now room and safety to cultivate it.... All I can really do is help open these doors and I think that’s the future of work really.”

Søren Brogaard, CEO of Danish company Trackunit, a leader in IoT solutions for the construction equipment industry, invited his entire staff to a two-day silent retreat to enhance the team spirit and nurture a culture of trust. “It was a remarkable experience that we are still benefiting from,” he told us during a (not so silent) conference in Copenhagen early last year.

Need inspiration? We’ve done some research for you.

Say hello to humble leadership

Consider Danish CEO Jesper Panduro’s call for a reverse mentor, a young person from whom he can learn and vice versa. Another quality that would be nice to see? Leaders who can lose gracefully.

Another way to invite others from outside your bubble is to institute a shadow board of non-executive talent, not as a token but a real advisory panel. Such shadow boards can help leaders better understand worker disengagement and changing market conditions.

A diverse workforce can also indicate a company’s openness to different perspectives. It’s not only cultural and location diversity that matter, though. Remote working since the pandemic has made life more bearable for neurodivergent employees whose prior complaints about “sensory overload caused by lighting and sound, communication issues in team meetings and long commutes” were too often ignored.

In the age of Clubhouse, must we all become skilled moderators?

Clubhouse is the logical culmination of work as a conversation. As room and thought leaders rather than just ring leaders, managers must now more deliberately and publicly curate and orchestrate this conversation. Clubhouse, in fact, makes us all moderators, as Tim Leberecht writes in this piece for Psychology Today. This democratization of moderation has benefits: in a society as polarized as ours, “moderate” views and actions are welcome.

Moreover, the ability to moderate different viewpoints, include strangers from diverse backgrounds in a conversation, and make sure all voices are heard is the cornerstone of civil dialogue, of democracy.

And it’s the hallmark of effective leaders.

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