SERENDIPITY IN QUARANTINE PART 2: In the future, why will people come to work?

In the future, a workplace will need a clear purpose. It will need to entice and pull us in, and be better than the convenience of home.  Post pandemic, people will continue to want a sense of autonomy to self-structure their work day experiences. Deciding to leave your house will be a mindful (not auto-pilot) decision. People will opt into an ‘on-site’ work experience when a specific task or team requires in-person support. It will not be a default expectation. 

So what’s the point of the future workplace exactly? The point is to have a place that supports employee work priorities, motivations and activities. With many people continuing to choose to work full time or part-time virtually, the workplace will not be all things to all people. It will likely be a small format and more specific (meets the needs of some users), not large footprint and generic (meets the needs of all users). Less like a multi-purpose room (this room is flexible for any kind of school need- from a lunch room to a theater stage and leaves you thinking ‘get me out of here’ ) and more like a gymnasium (this room is flexible for any kind of sport you want to do and leaves you thinking ‘memories are made here’).  The future workplace is a display of business activities (the important meetings happen here!), not a trophy box of tenure or title (the important people sit over there!).  

Consider this range of possible work activities plotted on a 2 x 2 framework- toggling between informal and formal interactions and business to personal motivations. When planning for the workplace of the future think about which of these activities are critical as ‘on-site’ experiences versus ‘off-site’ experiences. 

How do we know what will draw employees in? Right now, companies are monitoring trends, talking to peers, canvassing employees, and studying the metadata from emails, slack messages, calendar invites and zoom meetings. Researchers continue to gather data and evaluate the gains and losses of remote work and the opportunities and barriers of hybrid work. Emerging insights suggest people miss people the most. 

  • A Cushman & Wakefield survey from August 2020 reports the impact of missing people reduces human connection social bonding, effecting connection to corporate culture and learning. 
  • The authors of HBR’s article The Implication of Working Without An Office (July 2020) report virtual work may have 3 long term impacts to work; onboarding, “weak ties” and fostering relationships which may significantly affect collaboration and innovation. 
  • In Gensler’s US Work from Home Survey 2020 (released end of May 2020), respondents were asked to rank what they believe to be the most important reason for coming into the office. The top three responses were: Schedule meetings with colleagues, socializing with colleagues, impromptu face-to-face interactions. Interestingly, #6 on the list was ‘focusing on my work’. 

Can we imagine a future in-person work experience? Here are two possible Futures that might become more mainstream in the years to come: 

FUTURE SCENARIO 1: The Workplace is a Clubhouse: In this future, all the staff of an organization become ‘members’ of one or a network of locations. People come in specifically for human connection and social serendipity: to meet in person, socialize with colleagues and benefit from impromptu face to face interactions. Does it sound like the workplace of yesteryear? Sort of, but it will emphasize informal and social programming and spaces and de-emphasize places for focus work and superfluous amenities (no more assigned offices and desks, no more fitness centers and wellness rooms). If it were a recipe it might be equal parts; the vibrancy of WeWork, the exclusivity of Soho House, the creativity of Youtube Space, the community of Next Door StateFarm and the design thinking of SAPapphaus. The focus will be strengthening weak ties. As Sociologist Mark Granovetter research describes- when people cultivate weak ties they build social bridges that help gain access to information or people they might otherwise have access to. They can mingle a new idea or get support to go farther faster if they have more connections within their community. 

FUTURE SCENARIO 2: The Workplace is an Intensive Immersion: In this future, people will make the trek from home to gain access to new information and bump elbows with leaders. Social connection will be the bi-product and added benefit of other important business milestones like on-boarding and leadership training. Costs will be easier to justify since they connect directly to business KPIs. You might be thinking: Companies already do these things and host these kinds of events. True- but in the future it might be the only capital and operational investment; a focus on short terms rentals, not long term leases. If it were a recipe it might be equal parts; the future talent investment of Citadel’s Summer 2020 Intern Camp,  the hospitality and leadership access of Deloitte University, the in-person connections of an online MBA at University of Michigan Ross School of Business, the inspiration of a TED Talks Conference, the platform of Convene. In this future, employees will be fueled by exposure to new thinking and feel like a valuable team member with more visibility and interaction with leaders.  As a 10 year study at MIT suggests (based on the Allen Curve) proximity matters. In these intensive immersions, the physical proximity to a variety of colleagues might encourage more substantive conversations and ross-disciplinary connections more frequently.  While this workplace experience sounds stellar, you’d be surprised (or have your own stories) of how many summits and off-sites spend a lot but in terms of experience and take-aways dropped the ball. These intensive immersions must be curated to align leaders, generate new ideas, and fuel collaboration across teams. In the future these experiences won’t be the added bonus of a IRL work experience, it will be the main show. 

The pandemic has wiped the white-collar workplace gameboard clean of all its pieces. So as we start to write new rules and add elements back onto the board, let’s really listen, observe and learn from people’s gains and losses during this time.  Let’s make sure to bring along our past successes and examples. Let’s consider what we really need to help people connect with people and the value that has for an organization’s success. Work is so much more than a corporate office, now is the time to start a new game.