Back to Work May Not Mean High Tech Workspaces

Tiner meetingspaces

Over the past several months, authors on rAVe [PUBS], such as David Danto, have written about the future of the office. This has also been the speculation of newspapers and magazines as of late. In fact, the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review has a cover story on the Work from Anywhere Future. Danto’s blog here on rAVe, titled “Video Collaboration Has Finally Arrived,” was particularly interesting to me. It began to touch on the technology involved in the work-from-anywhere future. I agree with just about everything Danto wrote, and was especially intrigued to think about the space allocation of future workspaces. He argues that the current allocation of 70% to offices and 30% to meeting/collaboration spaces will probably flip, and I agree.

I wanted to dive a bit deeper into that topic and think of why this allocation would flip and what the resulting technological needs are. Danto makes an argument that knowledge workers are more able than ever to work from anywhere. I think that is mainly because of the type of work these knowledge workers do. Whether it is meeting with co-workers to move a project along, a catch with individual employees or your boss, where you are does not matter. In fact, as we have learned over the past several months, a large portion of what we do can be done from anywhere. Our tools, especially videoconferencing tools, have improved so much that they don’t impede our work anymore. Or, in Danto’s words, they just work so well and so often, we don’t think about whether they work; we just expect them to.

However, there are some critical pieces of work that I would argue still need in-person interaction, or at least technology that makes the virtual people entirely seamless to the people in person. After a semester of watching remote teaching and hearing from faculty who have used various technological tools, I don’t think that we have the technology to do this seamless hybrid experience yet. We certainly don’t have the technology that “just works,” like our videoconferencing does. This blog is not about teaching, mind you, but I believe the things we still need to do in person are very analogous to what happens in a classroom.

I have a firm belief that we still need team building, and we still need to get together in those teams for brainstorming and in-depth problem-solving. I also think these two things go hand in hand. We first need to build teams that we trust and can be vulnerable around to get our best brainstorming and problem-solving. If I can’t tell someone that I disagree with their idea without worrying about hurting their feelings or getting blowback, we can not have a real work session. My experience tells me that it needs to be done in person. To illustrate this, we have heard from faculty this year that the biggest hurdle they face is when a small number of students in a classroom are remote, and the vast majority are in person. They talk about how difficult group work is and that consistently, those remote people either feel left out or, in fact, are left out. In other words, the technology that supports a remote person does not let them become fully part of the team.

Yes, some really good technology exists trying to mimic this, but I don’t think it has yet. Remote interactive whiteboards, break out rooms in zoom and other tools still require someone sitting in front of a piece of technology. Team building and collaborative work are best done sitting in front of another person or persons without technology in the way. Let’s even take this a step further and think about some of the technology coming along quickly and holds promise but is not yet ready. Let’s think about holograms. Yes, sitting someone at a table with other people and appearing to be fully there in person does help that team feeling. But then what happens when people want to step up to a whiteboard or do a card-sorting exercise? They suddenly run into the situation that the remote person can not participate in the same way without putting more technology in place. What happens when it is noontime, and the team decides to go out to lunch together? The remote person loses that experience.

This all makes me wonder whether the actual technology in these newly arranged office spaces will change much from what it was like in March of 2020. Sure, there will be more meeting spaces, but those meeting spaces will be more of the same. They will be a place for people in the office to go to to meet with people who are not. But they won’t lead to a drastically different technology, at least in the near future. In fact, I envision some spaces in these new office areas to have no technology. After us all being quarantined for a year or longer, perhaps having to be in a room with our teams and do some problem-solving in person won’t be such a bad thing.