Illustration by Olenka Malarecka
Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

How the pandemic is preparing us to work from anywhere

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Published on October 23, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Workspace researcher Jennifer Magnolfi Astill explains how the health crisis could inspire experimentation with bold, new forms of work culture.

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After seven months away from the office, the way you used to work might feel like a distant memory. With the flexibility to start the day earlier, end the day later, and find uninterrupted hours of focus, you might be getting even more done at home than you did in the office. 

For some, that’s less about unstructured time, and more about the comforts of home—especially when home feels like a calm oasis where it’s easy to get in a creative flow. In a new survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the majority of workers reported feeling more focused at home than at the office. 42% are spending more time on deep focused work, and just 22% are spending less.

For others, like working parents, WFH can be a hurricane of chaos with endless emails, Slack chats, and Zoom meetings interrupted by remote learning sessions and family chores.

Now we’re learning more about why the same work environment doesn’t work for everyone. 

Architects and ergonomics experts spent years perfecting office workspaces with the goal of making us comfortable so we could be more productive. That led to the open office becoming the consensus design. But the new EIU survey also shows that the face-to-face interruptions common in open offices were the biggest source of distraction for most workers. 

Now there’s the new question of whether open office environments will even be viable in the age of COVID-19. The pandemic not only made safety the new top priority, it expanded our idea of what a “workspace” can actually be. It revealed how we’d been stuck in an outdated paradigm. 

The shift to distributed work has proven work can happen almost anywhere. And when we’re no longer forced to be isolated, companies will have more flexibility to choose between the “hybrid model” and Virtual First. The question is: If we don’t always need offices to do our jobs, when do we need them? How will the pandemic change the way we use them? 

The pandemic not only made safety the new top priority, it expanded our idea of what a “workspace” can actually be.

Jennifer Magnolfi Astill is the founder of Programmable Habitats, a consultancy that specializes in the strategic development of high-tech future work environments. She's advised companies such as Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Herman Miller, and BBC on headquarter workspace initiatives. With the future of offices still uncertain, we wanted to get her perspective on how the pandemic could shape where and how we work in the years ahead. The following is a conversation that took place over email. 

How do you envision workspaces changing in the next 5-10 years? 

MAGNOLFI ASTILL: The innovations that catalyze structural shifts in the world of work, particularly in the field of technology workspaces, often become manifest in physical environments a few years after their adoption by end users. 

For example, at a large scale, building infrastructure systems for new technologies might require upgrades planned across several business cycles. Or, closer to the end user, workers might default to tablets or wireless laptops as their primary work tool and might see their desks give way to unassigned seating well before workstations are upgraded to have USB instead of Ethernet ports. 

It is safe to predict that changes in the workspace in the next 5-10 years will inevitably be influenced by our work experience during the Coronavirus pandemic. This will impact the entire ecosystem of stakeholders, from landlords to occupants.

In the near term, new considerations such as staggered days in the office, social distancing and new hygiene measures, modified design and circulation patterns, increased use of video and remote collaboration software and many other new factors will continue to inform our work experience. 

The pandemic is akin to a spike in the work evolution curve. It has accelerated the widespread adoption of the prior shift—mobility—to areas of the workforce traditionally more reticent to it. It has also revealed a broader undercurrent, namely our reliance on machine assistance for complex decision making and analysis, which are increasingly more common scenarios across all areas of business. 

It is reasonable to assume that the pandemic will inform both policy as well as design modifications in most work environments. In the absence of a reliable and widespread vaccine, however, organizations will be required to maximize their capacity for adaptation so this will take different forms depending on the organization. I don’t really see a one size fits all solution. Having said this, the generalizable factor that the pandemic revealed is the increasingly dominant role that machine intelligence has for business and competitiveness. 

“The pandemic is akin to a spike in the work evolution curve. It has accelerated the widespread adoption of the prior shift—mobility—to areas of the workforce traditionally more reticent to it.”

An example that comes to mind in terms of recent use of ML/AI in relation to the workspace is IBM’s Watson Works, a system that uses AI to both support decision making at the level of workspace portfolio to facilitate re-entry into the office, as well as an employee app to connect the individual end-user with both policy decisions and information about a specific workspace. The system thus allows a centralized "hub" view of integrated workforce/workspace insights on one end, and it is an individual portal for the end-user for things like reserving a desk or meeting space, logging health status for accessing the workspace, reviewing new space plans and layouts, policies etc. 

Effectively, the modeling allows for visibility into a range of activities in the workplace which would otherwise be very difficult to assess or manage remotely, particularly for large real estate/workspace portfolios—things like making decisions on re-entry into the workspace based on real-time data on employees' health or location safety, visibility into the occupancy rates and utilization patterns or social distancing of different workspaces, and eventually facilitating contact tracing in case of need. This is an example of a curated system that helps interpret and derive insights from data provided by a workforce network to inform decisions about workspace strategy to support that same network. 

In a recent interview, you noted that the people developing workspaces in 2008 weren’t thinking about creating innovation, they were responding to an unmet need. What are the unmet needs that have become clear during this crisis, particularly during the shift to work? 

Broadly speaking, I would group the unmet needs unveiled by the pandemic in three categories: digital space unmet needs, physical space unmet needs, and work culture unmet needs. 

To start with, there has been a change in mindset when it comes to the mobility of work. From the organization’s perspective, most know they can be productive but few had prior experience in managing a distributed workforce as a community. Transforming a network of remote colleagues into a cohesive community of work is the domain of community managers, a function that was mostly absorbed by HR departments, but that emerged as a distinct job to be done during the pandemic. 

Secondly, the pandemic clarified that certain functions are optimized by interaction in the real world—in proximity with each other and in real time. Decision making, course of action selection, and learning in teams are functions that are optimized in space, particularly when it comes to work contexts that require the integration or manipulation of data or the interaction with machine work—be it robotics or data analytics. The third has to do with culture and work anthropology, particularly in the context of socialization with colleagues as an important aspect of professional life and the on-boarding of new employees. 

While the first can look to some established precedent for inspiration, and therefore a new function can emerge to meet that need, the other two will require innovation and new design, insofar as the basis for performance in both has traditionally been afforded by access to shared physical spaces. 

What’s been the most surprising development you’ve observed in the past few months as workers and companies have made the shift to remote work? 

I’d say many things have surprised me, but one stands out. The chaos that many have experienced from merging their entire life with their work “space” has in many cases been liberating—causing what we might call an “extreme humanizing” of work relations. 

Prior to the pandemic, even the most informal and friendly work cultures, such as tech or startups, drew a fine line between personal/family life and work/office life, particularly in more experienced, higher-ranking workers. In ordinary times, this mental and emotional separation is both appropriate and in many cases necessary. 

In the midst of a pandemic, however, this line was softened by a shared experience of struggle and by the unavoidable conversations that many workers and leaders had to have with each other about the reality of their circumstances and the things and the people that mattered in their lives. In my observation, the renewed perspective of the human person at work might be one of the most valuable insights we have gained from the past few months. 

Your research shows that remote teams benefit from physical interaction by coming together to solidify social bonds that improve teamwork—and you’ve advocated for designing a workspace that encourages people to interact more. What might that look like in virtual workspaces such as collaboration docs ? 

Both research and observations in the field suggest that shared experiences in real life—in the physical world together in real time—provide strong foundations for interpersonal relations, trust and improved communication among team members. These, in turn, support the team’s productivity and collaborative work patterns when they are distributed for an extended period of time. 

What is important to note in this, however, is that these interactions, when successful, are seldom left to chance. They are either facilitated by the intentional design of the physical environment in which they take place or, in many cases, purposely curated with the intent to create a memorable experience. Often, both. 

Digital collaboration spaces which allow for both management of workflow and communication in a team environment are not immune to this need for memorable (and purposeful) interactions, in as much as they, too, are social spaces for exchange. The governing principle often distinguishing successful and productive communities of work, whether in physical or digital space, is to forge connections that otherwise would not happen and guide those interactions towards a certain goal. 

How do you foresee people interacting and collaborating when some are in the physical office building while others are in the digital/virtual space? 

This requires a delicate balance early on as new norms of work in our hybrid context are emerging. “Work from Anywhere” strategies being currently developed across organizations will be best served by taking this point into account. 

“There has been a change in mindset when it comes to the mobility of work. From the organization’s perspective, most know they can be productive but few had prior experience in managing a distributed workforce as a community.” 

Early on in my research, I found that engineering and programming teams would often define somewhat organically the things that needed to happen in digital space—like chat, for example, where a lot of iterative work would take place—and those that required a wall (often a whiteboard)—which was good to “fix in space” a moment in the evolution of a project. 

My sense is that something similar is occurring in high-performing teams now. Cohesive teams, particularly knowledge and technology workers, will be adept at organizing their work, their assumptions and expectations of performance based on a mental model of working through the pandemic most of us now share. 

In some cases, the choice between working in digital space or going to the office might be based less on arbitrary scheduling, and more on where it makes more sense to work at that point in time in the lifecycle of the project or to optimize overall team performance. 

In terms of adopting new collaboration tools, you’ve noted how almost 10 years of workspace progress has happened in a few months, simply because more people were forced to adopt video conferencing and remote collaboration tools. Do you think these adoptions will “stick” and continue to be valued going forward? 

Some of the things that I think will stick, as you say, will constitute a new baseline for the future workspace, inevitably including new video collaboration tools. One of the main reasons for this is their effectiveness in underpinning most distributed work strategies. 

Having said this, I think it’s still too early to determine which tools and what mix will stay and for how long, because we are still learning which parts of our psychology at work each of these tools is best suited for. We are all developing fluency and a personal or company work style with regards to, for example, when we feel it’s necessary to have a video vs. a call.

This experimentation will in some cases lead to new forms of “work culture”—i.e. this is how things are done in our organization now—that will then be formalized and integrated into work practices and policy. This will take time and much will depend on the evolution of the pandemic in the next year. 

How much of the benefit of remote collaboration today would you say depends on pre-established trust between colleagues, which would need to be built up for new hires? 

The curation of digital work communities, and therefore the fostering of the values and norms that help those communities thrive, is an important and necessary job function, particularly at scale. Interaction design is a key factor in this. 

Trust develops over time and is facilitated by shared experiences and by the development of knowledge about each other’s character and expertise. There are cognitive factors—like developing a shared mental model of work—and interpersonal factors—like psychological safety and dependability—at work in all high-performing teams. 

We instinctively know when we are part of a great team. The translation of these factors to a remote workforce is necessary for developing trust among team members, particularly when a new one joins an established group, and will offer great opportunities for innovation in work practices and culture. 

Dropbox recently announced that we’re now a Virtual First company, meaning remote work will be the day-to-day default for individual work. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this concept. What would you say are the advantages of being Virtual First? 

I think there is a notable point to be made, and it’s the cultural one—the (seemingly) intentional effort to level the field for all employees when it comes to the choice of how to work. I think this will likely show positive outcomes in addition to the logistical advantages implied by the new workspace policy.