Work has changed drastically in recent years. That much is abundantly clear. But for employees and companies alike, the big question now is how the nature of work will change in the near and distant future.
Corporations around the globe have invested a great deal in researching the future of work: what it will likely be and how to effectively adapt to it.
Among employees, there is widespread anticipation of changes to the labor market given the anticipated economic recession, but beyond that, there are also attempts to understand how employees’ relationships with the companies they work for might change, especially if the physical office no longer defines the day-to-day work experience.
Despite this interest and research, a collective understanding of what the future of work will actually look like hasn’t solidified, at least not yet.
Of course, researchers are still hard at work gathering information and forecasting the ways in which observable changes in the present could lead to major shifts in the years to come.
To guide our discussion of the future of work, and more specifically the future of the workplace itself, Artvoice spoke with an expert design researcher, Shreya Thakkar, who has been conducting extensive research on this topic as Design Research and Strategy Consultant for Planning Design Research Corporation in Los Angeles.
Thakkar’s design experience encompasses construction management for multifamily housing and commercial spaces, furniture design, and product design.
“After a few years of working, I realized that I most enjoyed learning about the people who would eventually use the product or space. To me, there was nothing more fascinating than learning about their culture by listening to, watching, or living vicariously through them.”
This drive led Thakkar to take a unique approach to tackling design challenges, combining technical proficiency with a deeply empathetic understanding of the end user.
Thakkar especially enjoys understanding and enhancing spatial user experiences, such as workplaces. She now leads workplace strategy projects for Fortune 500 companies in tech, consumer goods, and professional services.
She also designs and facilitates leadership workshops for clients in government, education, and law to further explore the present and future demands of the workplace.
Let’s begin the discussion by turning to the realities of the workplace itself and how those realities have been altered both during and in the wake of the pandemic.
A hybrid future?
“Prior to the Pandemic, the workplace was typically a physical location. Working remotely and collaborating virtually have grown more commonplace than at any other time in history.”
This is something that many of us have experienced firsthand over the past three years, and so many of us are also familiar with some of the challenges presented by the absence, or relative scarcity, of in-person work.
Thakkar notes that reaching a full understanding of hybrid work behavior and its effects won’t be possible until more people return to traditional office work environments.
“Surveys and engagements provide valuable sentiment on what employees would like to do, but we also know that sentiment may not always reflect end behaviors.”
This incomplete understanding of the efficacy of hybrid work versus traditional work and how employees feel about hybrid work models poses a serious challenge to employers. Companies don’t know yet whether it’s in their best interest or their employees’ best interest to support hybrid structures rather than facilitating a widespread return to traditional, in-person work environments.
In the meantime, there are indeed steps that employers can take to ensure that employees working remotely can stay productive and effective.
Thakkar explained that businesses should learn the needs of remote employees and help to modify their current setup or, alternatively, establish completely new spaces and resources.
“Employers can also assist their remote employees in having a more positive experience by providing them with tools and support that increase the productivity of their workspaces and bring the employees closer to the firm.”
But would something foundational be lost in a shift to hybrid/remote work? Is there something inherently valuable about all employees working together in a shared physical workspace?
When it comes to sheer productivity, remote work can mean greater productivity.
“According to the findings of a number of different studies, the vast majority of employees are able to attain higher levels of productivity when they operate in environments other than traditional offices.”
But remote work isn’t superior across the board. For example, Thakkar describes here the benefits of being able to interact face-to-face.
“As a result of the inadequacy of online technologies to capture and communicate the interpersonal dynamics and social cues of face-to-face interactions, it is recommended that collaborative projects be carried out in person whenever it is feasible to do so.”
But hybrid/remote work could also have an impact beyond the workplace.
Thakkar notes that a restructuring of workplaces could lead to other forms of disruption.
“As the need to commute to physical offices decreases and people spend more time at home, there may be an increased need for a greater variety of activities that can be reached on foot.”
Further, a substantial decrease in the need for physical offices would leave vacant commercial and office properties, which could then potentially be re-zoned as residential areas.
“This will necessitate adjustments to zoning laws as well as significant financial commitments from property owners. In the future, physical office spaces may be structured to enable more collaborative activities as opposed to kinds of tasks that may be completed on an individual basis.”
So a long-term commitment to hybrid work and/or remote work could have wide-ranging knock-on effects for both work life and personal life. It could even mean the abandonment of the much-maligned euclidean zoning approach ubiquitous in US city planning.
Still, this all depends on whether hybrid work becomes the norm, which is by no means a certainty.
But hybrid and remote work present another important question for employers: how do these work structures impact what’s referred to as company culture?
Company culture or workplace culture are terms that tend to be problematically vague, but in essence, they refer to certain qualities, processes, values, and goals that are representative of the company as a whole.
Vitally, Thakkar separates company culture into cognitive culture and emotional culture, both of which are essential elements for understanding and communicating company culture to employees new and old.
If this culture isn’t successfully communicated to all employees, then employees will have their own interpretations of workplace culture, which means they will also have their own conceptions of what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.
In the absence of a concentrated, in-person work environment, communicating and maintaining company culture becomes even more difficult.
Thakkar has given a great deal of thought to how companies can communicate company culture even within the context of remote work, or any work that takes place outside of the office.
“Firms must extend the brand’s internal experience, procedures, and culture beyond the office. Implementing newly developed methods and models of employee engagement that are tailored to the needs of remote workers can provide for a more pleasant culture in the workplace, regardless of where the organization is physically located.”
Company culture can’t simply be communicated using methods designed to be effective in physical offices. Companies need to address the needs and habits of remote workers where they are, namely a home office or a series of ad hoc workspaces in the case of an employee who travels extensively for work.
Based on her research, Thakkar feels strongly that it’s possible to create a model of work that generates positive results for everyone involved.
“We are able to develop a new model of work that is truly innovative if we consolidate the previous experiences we’ve had, establish new goals for ourselves, and place the empowerment, creativity, and well-being of our workforce at the core of our efforts.”
This isn’t an idle observation, and Thakkar is in fact taking steps to engage a wide variety of individuals and organizations in this broader conversation about the future of work.
An ongoing conversation
To further the conversation, Thakkar started the Probe and Ponder series, which is a brainstorming session and community space meant for discourse on design trends and drivers of change. These discussions are meant to inspire leaders to do the difficult work of imagining possible futures.
“This series is essentially about ‘what is, what ought to be, and how to achieve it.’ It encompasses our courses of understanding the world, postulating foresight for the future, and crafting scenarios about means of what to achieve. It is an attempt to predict risks, challenges, and opportunities, and eventually, try to shape the future.”
In a more simplified sense, the ultimate goal is to create a long-term positive impact. Our lives are influenced heavily by our work, and while no one knows exactly what the future holds, we can collectively make informed decisions about how to shape the future of work and the future of business.
If you’d like to learn more about Shreya’s craft, check out her website through this link.