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The Future of Work – No, Really

Sometimes, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on in the moment. Life whizzes by so rapidly that all we can do is cope. After a little time passes, we may begin to understand what’s happening—but that’s just the beginning. It takes some time and distance to really gain perspective on our experiences.

There hasn’t been a shortage of “This is the Future of Work” psychics, especially since the pandemic. These are people and intuitions who were quick to explain what we were experiencing from the perspective of their beliefs and investments. The focus of future of work debates is shifting from where to how thanks to AI. However, there’s still a lot of confusion around where, so allow me to revisit that discussion.


What We Know

The facts emerging around the immediate future of work are clear at this point:

  • Research report after research report clearly shows that knowledge workers desire autonomy in work location. Workers' attitudes toward commuting have shifted and the evidence has shown commutes are not strongly correlated to productivity. Some prefer working from home, some prefer working in an office, and some prefer bits of both.
  • Most (not all) senior executives want employees back in the office. There have been several attempts to force (mandates) or incentivize (magnets) employees to return. Most leaders want to see heads in cubes again.
  • At the same time senior executives want heads in cubes, CFOs are all-in on reduced office space. Many organizations are shedding real estate commitments – in some cases rapidly. This is partially due to the many people still working remotely and also due to a large number of recent layoffs. Whatever the driver, it’s saving tons of cash. As interesting as the work-from-home and return-to-office debates are, the former option is coupled with financial benefits.
  • Formerly dense cities are suffering. Office occupancy levels are at record lows, and the repercussions are significant. Remote work has a social cost, and no one is prepared to foot the bill. Remote work impacts dry cleaners, fuel stations, restaurants, and even mass transit systems. Fortune recently reported that large city office occupancy was finally back to 60% of pre-pandemic levels – framing that as a win for return to the office (RTO). If you start with the fact that pre-pandemic occupancy was only at 65-70% percent to begin with and take 60% of that, you have a clearer picture of what’s actually going on.


Now That We Know All That

Rallying against any of the factually-supported observations above has no true benefit. Employees are seeing that most organizations have no qualms about mass force reductions, and employers are learning that resentment about office mandates has all but destroyed employee morale and trust. Mandates often misfire, and instead of employees returning, employees leave for more flexible employers.

So, what are the best actions to take?

  • Change the office. Rows and rows of desks in a cold, sterile environment (something the bigger firms used to call “densification”) will not encourage the most productive work from happy employees. Floor plans need to be flexible to encourage different types of interactions. Softer furniture and finishes, biophilic accents, natural sunlight, and the like will make for an office that hits the hackneyed phrase of “earning the commute.”
  • Enable collaboration from everywhere. Video conference rooms used to be expensive. Today decent video bar solutions are available for less than a thousand dollars. Video enabled interactions should be available everywhere. Every desktop, every room, every home. Rooms should be video-enabled, and employees should be video-equipped with decent notebooks and peripherals such as cameras, headset, speakers, and lights. Enterprise collaboration is only as good as the weakest link.
  • Pick a platform and interop plan. Decide on one (or two) of the excellent collaboration suites available today. Every major UCaaS provider now offers voice, chat, and meetings. Get it deployed enterprise-wide, including rooms, homes, and smartphones. The key consideration is less about fidelity, and more about how to interact with other selected partners and suppliers. Also, address interop because most providers don’t. There’s usually some limited interop built-in or select a third-party bridging service. Are you going to use the built-in “direct guest join” or similar services? There are pros and cons with each option, but regardless of which you’d pick, decide well before it is needed for a real meeting and communicate the process to everyone.
  • Utilize a desk reservation system for hoteling. Whether it’s a third-party system or one that is built into your collaboration platform, roll out the use of a system that lets employees reserve spaces and coordinate with colleagues. These can be as simple as a computer calendar plug-in or as complex as light-up signs at each workstation and room. Whatever you prefer, don’t leave to chance the possibility that the productive collisions many speak about will happen without intervention.
  • Be ready for the next crisis. We all hope nothing like the pandemic ever happens again, but it certainly could. We are also seeing a significant increase in climate-related calamities. Disaster recovery and business continuity planning need to be in place and robust enough for long-term impacts. Is your organization prepared to send everyone home and still stay in business? There’s no excuse to claim it could never happen.


Outlook: Cloudy and Uncertain

 While the future is hard to predict, we know there’s less slack in theall the systems that comprise the modern economy. We used to talk about just-in-time, but that doesn’t work anymore. Shipping containers have been someone else’s problem for the past 100 years—suddenly, pirates are diverting ships, canals are being blocked by stuck ships, or droughts are limiting their capacity. Supply chains are fragile. Two wars, elections, and more require businesses to be more agile than ever before. 

These are interesting times for IT professionals. Many tech firms are downgrading their outlooks. AI is currently consuming most resources. Two wars and political dysfunction are contributing to global uncertainty, especially in tech. Companies with fewer employees require less hardware and fewer user licenses. Companies are also shedding leases, and some properties are being foreclosed by banks.

Organizations that don’t adequately prepare for the future may either have their lunch eaten by competitors that do, or they may simply be washed away by the storm. The business pundits are still generally optimistic about the future that generative AI may bring, but if you’re an employer and you’re not following the actions above, you’re definitely not preparing for the future.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.