One of my favourite authors, Vaclav Smil, has this riff he uses in several books. He tells you about a young woman who wakes up and drinks a mug of instant coffee before taking a subway to work. When she gets to 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 desk. The plot twist is that the situation he’s describing 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 Smil described was. But when I read it again during the pandemic, it felt for the first time as if he was describing the past (although not the part about drinking a Coke in the middle of the workday!).
Of all the areas that are forever changed by the pandemic, I suspect that office work will see the most dramatic shift.
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 somewhere every day and work from a desk in an office – sounds increasingly like a relic of the past, even though it was 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 returned to full in-person work. Others have committed to being entirely remote. Most are somewhere in between, still trying to figure out what works best.
I’m excited about the potential for experimentation. Expectations around traditional work have been upended. I see lots of opportunity to rethink things and find out what is effective and what isn’t. Although most companies will likely opt for a hybrid approach in which people come into the office part of the week, there’s a good deal of flexibility around what exactly that looks like.
What days do you want everyone to be in the office for meetings? Do you let people work remotely on Mondays and Fridays, or do you let them stay home in the middle of the week? In order to minimise commuter traffic, it would be best if every company in an area didn’t pick the same days.
One prediction I made in The Road Ahead was that digitisation would create more choices about where to live and lead to many people moving farther out of cities. It looked as though this wasn’t going to pan out – until the pandemic hit. Now I am doubling down on that prediction.
Some companies will decide that time in the office is required only one week a month. This will allow employees to live farther away, since a long commute is easier to tolerate if you aren’t doing it most days. Although we’ve seen some early signs of this transition, I think we’ll see a lot more of it in the decade ahead as employers formalise remote-work policies.
If you decide that employees are required to be in the office less than 50 percent of the time, you can share your workspace with another company. Office space is a significant expense for businesses, which could be cut in half. If enough companies do this, the demand for expensive office space would be reduced.
I don’t see any reason why companies need to make firm decisions right away. This is a great time to take an A/B testing approach. Maybe you have one team try one configuration while a different team tries another, so that you can compare the results and find the right balance for everyone.
There will be tension between managers who tend to be more conservative about new approaches and employees who want more flexibility. Résumés in the future will likely include information about preferences for being able to work away from the office.
The pandemic has forced companies to rethink productivity in the workplace. The boundaries between once discrete areas – brainstorming, team meetings, quick conversations in the hallway – are collapsing. Structures that we thought were essential to office culture have begun to evolve, and the changes will only intensify in the years to come as businesses and employees settle into new permanent ways of working.
I think most people will be surprised by the pace of innovation over the next decade now that the software industry is focused on remote working scenarios. Many of the benefits of working in the same physical space – like running into people at the water cooler – can be re-created with the right user interface.
If you use a platform like Teams for work, you’re already using a much more sophisticated product than you were in March 2020. Features like breakout rooms, live transcription, and alternate view- ing options are now standard across most teleconferencing services. Users are just beginning to take advantage of the rich features available to them.
For example, I often use the chat function in many of my virtual meetings to add comments and ask questions. When I meet in person now, I miss the ability to have this kind of high-bandwidth interaction without distracting the group.
Eventually, digital meetings will evolve beyond simply duplicating an in-person meeting. Live transcription will one day allow you to search for a topic across all meetings at your company. You might be able to have action items automatically added to your to-do list as they’re mentioned, and analyse a meeting’s video recording to learn how to make your time more productive.
One of the greatest drawbacks of online meetings is that video doesn’t let you see who is looking where. A lot of the nonverbal exchanges get lost, eliminating a human element. Moving from squares and rectangles to other “seating” arrangements makes things a bit more natural, but it doesn’t solve the loss of eye contact.
This is about to change as we move participants into a 3D space. A number of companies – including Meta and Microsoft – have recently unveiled their visions for 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 favourite modern science fiction authors.)
The idea is that you will use a 3D avatar – a digital representation of yourself – to meet with people in a virtual space that mimics the feeling of being together in real life. This feeling is often referred to as “presence,” and a lot of tech companies have been working on capturing it since before the pandemic started.
When done well, presence can not only replicate the experience of an in-person meeting but enhance it: Picture a meeting where engineers at a car company who live on three different continents pull apart a 3D model of a new vehicle’s engine to make improvements.
This type of meeting could be accomplished through either augmented reality (where you superimpose a digital layer on top of our physical environment) or virtual reality (where you enter a completely immersive world). The change won’t come right away, since most people don’t own tools to enable this kind of capture yet, in contrast to the way the switch to video meetings was enabled by the fact that many people already had PCs or phones with cameras.
Right now, you can use virtual reality goggles and gloves to control your avatar, but more sophisticated and less obtrusive tools – like lightweight glasses and contact lenses – will come along over the next few years.
Improvements in computer vision, display technology, audio, and sensors will capture your facial expressions, eyeline, and body language with very little delay. Think about any time you’ve tried to jump in with a thought during a spirited video meeting, and how hard that was to do when you couldn’t see the way people’s body language shifts as they’re wrapping up a thought.
A key feature in the metaverse is the use of spatial audio, which makes speech sound like it’s actually coming from the direction of the person talking. 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 got to put on a headset and join a meeting in the metaverse. It was amazing to hear how people’s voices seemed to move along with them. You don’t realise how unusual it is to have meeting audio only coming from your computer’s speaker until you try something else. In the metaverse, you’ll be able to lean over and have a quiet side conversation with a coworker just as if you’re in the same room.
I’m particularly excited to see how metaverse technologies will enable more spontaneity with remote work. This is the biggest thing you lose when you’re not in the office. Working from your living room isn’t exactly conducive to having an unplanned discus- sion with your manager about your last meeting or starting a casual conversation with your new coworker about last night’s baseball game. But if you’re all working together remotely in a virtual space, you’ll be able to see when someone is free and approach that person to chat.
We’re nearing a threshold at which the technology is beginning to truly replicate 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’re moving toward a future where we will all spend more time around and within digital spaces. The metaverse may feel like a novel concept now, but as technology gets better, it will evolve into what feels more like an extension of our physical world.
Excerpted with permission from How To Prevent The Next Pandemic, Bill Gates, Allen Lane.