Future Of Work: Why Conventional Workplace May Never Come Back

An expert talks about how the predictions made about the future of work, have condensed to about 3 weeks because of the pandemic.

"Things are never going back to normal, and the conventional workplace is never coming back," said futurist Ben Hammersley, in a discussion with BOOM about how the pandemic has changed the way we work forever.

Hammersley, a journalist, time technologist, and strategic foresight specialist, talked about how the predictions made about the future of work, have condensed from 5 to 10 years to about 3 weeks, sometime in April.

"The businesses that are surviving are the ones that decided to look deeply at their processes look very deeply at their offering, and said, 'How do we make this work in a pandemic?' They're still here. And the ones who decided to wait, are the ones who are currently about to run out of money," added Hammersley.

Hammersley further added that the companies that survived are the ones that decided to move to remote working, to digitise all of their processes, while the ones who couldn't, might have already shut down or might be ready to shut down.

The interview can be watched here.

Edited excerpts of the interview can be read below.

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The last 7 or 8 months of COVID would have been busy for you, because everyone is trying to get a sense on which way the world is going to go. So that's my first question. As you look back, I don't know whether your views have changed. But I'm sure other people's views have changed about the nature of work and the nature of the workforce, even in the last six to seven months. But how does it look today? And how does it look today, looking ahead?

That's a very good question. I think the thing that has characterised the past seven or eight months has been that every prediction that we made about the future of work, that previously we thought would take maybe 5 or 10 years, happened in about 3 weeks, sometime in April. There has been this enormous acceleration of all of the changes that we previously knew about, we previously had discussed a great deal, but there were things that we thought would happen slowly.

And because of the lockdown, because of the pandemic, and in every part of the world, we've seen a huge acceleration of change. So it's not so much that the changes are unexpected. It's just they all happened extremely quickly. And that is the shocking thing. That's the thing that people have found very difficult, or at least the people I've been speaking to.

My sense is that there are some organisations who were swift to respond, in a manner or in a sense that they took this as an opportunity. And I've seen it in India with the large information technology companies who employ anywhere between 100,000 to 400,000 said that almost overnight, I know it wasn't exactly overnight, that we're going to use this to move into a 25% at work environment by next year, for example. So that's one kind.

And they must have been another kind, maybe who are more physical who had no choice but to say that we can only wait for things to come back. There must have been even others who would have said that maybe things will come back to what they were the day of a vaccine is found or people are able to control this pandemic?

Yes, that's exactly right. I think you can look at different companies precisely by how quickly they moved, and how decisive they were in the decision making. There were some companies who saw this as an opportunity to, to accelerate ahead with plans they already had. Or they were companies which never had these plans, but realised they needed to have them very, very soon, and they acted as soon as they possibly could. And those companies, and especially the service-based companies who were able to move to remote working, to digitise all of their processes, and then move to remote working as soon as possible, those companies are the ones who are still successful today, in fact, perhaps more successful than they were before. Then you have other companies who decided that they would wait for things to go back to normal.

And you can characterise those companies as the ones who've gone bankrupt now, or the ones who were about to, because there are two things we've learned. The first is that things didn't go back. And second is that they will never go back. You can wait for a vaccine, we can wait for global immunity, we can wait for a behaviour change to kick in. But that's gonna be maybe another six months, maybe another year. There isn't enough time for those companies. And so we're seeing now and especially around the world. I'm talking to you from New York, but really anywhere in the world. The companies that move quickly and make the changes early are continuing to be successful, continuing to exist and the ones who decided to wait -- they're the ones who are suffering very badly.

And then of course, like you say that the people who require physical work or physical location like restaurants and so on, again, it's the same thing. The ones who have looked very deeply at their processes look very deeply at their offering, and said, 'How do we make this work in a pandemic?' They're still here. And the ones who decided to wait, are the ones who are currently about to run out of money. They're the ones who are deep in debt, they're the ones who aren't paying rent anymore. And it's only through rent, moratoriums, and things like that, that they're still in business. But this time next year, they'll all be gone.

So let me pick up on two of the points. So one is you're saying that this is the future. And this is the future that in some ways was in the offing for maybe four or five years, but except that it happened in two weeks. Now, why is that the case? Why is it that this is the only future and not something else, or not the old way of doing things? When I say old way, I mean, in the context of work?

I think because so many things that we do for work, and so many things we do in the rest of our lives, we do mostly out of habit, and we do them out of inertia, we do that of momentum, it's the thing that we've always done, and we'd get up every day, and we do that thing. And then we go to bed, and we get up the next day and we do that thing again, and so on. And that's true for personal practices. It's true for corporations, it's true for just cultures in general. And what the pandemic did everywhere in the world is it forced everybody to stop. And when people stop, they then reassess what they've been doing before. And you can see this in really everything.

Virtual working, made people reassess the commute that they had to work. So for example, I've done work with clients in California, where they would drive for 3 to 4 hours a day, to go to the office and come home again. And then as soon as they started working from home, they no longer had that long commute. And if you speak to them, now, they will universally say there is no way they will ever go back to doing that commute again. It's just that they've done it out of habit, they've done it out of momentum, and when everybody is forced to stop, reassess the world, then people make those changes, and we can see that in everything in the world of work.

But even things like air pollution, look at the famous pictures from towns in India, where the factories were closed because of the pandemic. And suddenly, you could see the hills 100 miles away, you could suddenly see a blue sky. If you went back to the people who live in those cities and say, 'Okay, we're going to go back to normal. So everybody, prepare yourselves because we're going to go back to having a dirty atmosphere again.' That's a very difficult conversation to have. And it's the same thing in the world of work, if you're a boss, and you're telling your employees now, okay, 'We're going to go back into the office, and we're going to restart doing all the things that you have now realised, actually, we're terrible. '

That's a very, very difficult conversation. And it's a conversation that people aren't having, because there is a joy in reinventing the things that you've done out of habit. Because you don't really remember why you were doing them in the first place.

That's interesting. So let's take some best-case examples. The new Apple campus, some of the Google offices, the Googleplex, all of those represent the cutting edge in terms of workplace environments, a lot of design thought in terms of creating collaboration in terms of bringing high quality talent and everything else that goes with it, including the great food.

But now, is what you are saying that people will somehow manage to maybe motivate themselves to do at home, not everyone will, but many people could. Do you see that progression naturally?

Yes, absolutely. Because not everybody is Apple or Google. If you work for the two biggest corporations in the world, then yes, you can have the most beautiful headquarters in the world. But the vast majority of people don't work for those companies. They work for just regular organisations and most offices are terrible. Most offices, they're just not good places they have by bad conditioning, bad furniture. And, and we're also realising from a psychological point of view that a lot of office design is very bad.

What you said about collaboration, that's a very good point, there is a feeling, there's been a feeling for 30 years that open plan offices, for example, increased collaboration, make you creative. And that was a story that was sold by office furniture manufacturers here in the US. But if you look at any of the psychological studies, and there have been many psychological studies into this, what they find is that open-plan offices actually are the worst possible places for collaboration and creativity. Because in fact, they're incredibly distracting. And so nobody can have a thought that lasts for longer than a few seconds, because there are too many people around you.

And actually, the best thing for collaboration are single offices, where you are on your own from four days out of five. And then on the fifth day, you have intense, highly attended meetings with people who you're collaborating with. So that's a good example of how we know how to collaborate or we know how creativity or we know how productivity works.

And our knowledge of how that works is not reflected in the traditional office building architecture. So what we think of office as being collaborative or creative is in fact, not, it was actually just a con made by office furniture manufacturers and landlords who wanted to fit more people into a room than previously they could before. And now we've had this lockdown, and now we've had this great resetting and reassessment, we're now realising that actually, we can be more productive, we can be more creative. In fact, we can do better work if we're working from home, and we don't have the commute. And we don't have to put on trousers.

Right, so let me split the next question from the employer and the employee side. So from the employee side, or the worker, many workers like to go to work, because there is a social element to it. And they apart from the environment, maybe all offices are not so good, but some will be somewhere midway, and therefore, there is a social calling, so to speak, to go to the office to mix with a different set of people away from maybe a small condo, condo or an apartment, like we have in Mumbai here. And on the other side, you have the employers who are worried.

JP Morgan recently said that they want people to come back because they feel that this disaggregated way of working is not very productive. So from both sides, how do you see that panning out?

Well, so from the social side, I think that there will be other things which will take place. So absolutely, of course, being social and all of those sorts of natural human elements to human psychology, they will be replaced by other things, you'll find your social interactions somewhere else. And in terms of the worry from the managerial class, that if they're not constantly looking at their employees, their employees won't do good work, then that is just an indictment of the fact that either the work they're doing isn't good in the first place.

I mean, ethically, or morally; or it's an indictment of the fact that they're terrible managers. If you are a leader who requires you to have their eyes on their employees the entire time, you're a terrible leader. Whereas the most inspiring and the best teams are the ones where you can give your employees their tasks, you can give them their inspiration, you give them their projects, and then you lead them to do it on their own. I think if you work for somebody who insists that they can always see when you're doing your work, then that person is a terrible boss.

So where we've talked about disaggregated workers, but could disaggregated workers or workforce also lead to fragmented workplace. I heard you talk somewhere recently about people who suddenly realise that they have the whole work environment created in their homes, which is perfect to work, and they're talented already. And they can use that talent for any number or many more employers. But my question is actually two parts. One is what happens then to them and which may be good, but from the other side, in order for an organisation to manage a fragmented workforce, which is not fully plugged in becomes a bigger challenge.

It does become a bigger challenge. And that's why the challenge is to give those workers a task or a challenge or a problem to solve which is compelling enough that they won't wander off and work for somebody else. Again, this pushes the power as it were, the balance over towards the people with the actual talent who are doing the actual work.

And if you find that your business is suffering because you are not retaining your employees, your employees are using their remote working capability to go and work for somebody else who's giving them more money or who is giving them better projects or more interesting problems or something like that, then again, that's your fault, right? It's this and that, in general is how innovation works.

That's actually literally the driving force behind business growth or, or innovation, or just national development. If your cleverest workers continually head towards the more difficult problems that can only be good for everybody, apart from the businesses who want them to solve terrible problems, but there's no law that says they have to stay in business.

If you were to now draw up the blueprint, it's not even a blueprint, it is work in progress of the post COVID organisation, which is really somewhere in the middle of 2021, or towards the end of 2021. And an organisation that had or has had several thousands of people, several hundreds to a few thousand sitting in HQ, and of course, offices in many parts of the country. And then there are manufacturing, outlets, and warehouse sales. How do you see all of this, you know, developing, and both again, from an organization's point of view, as well as from the workers or workforce point of view?

I think it's a cultural change, which is that they can now push the decision making closer to the edges, they can push the decision making and the and the product development and the customer service and so on, closer out further out towards where the talent is. If you do that, then you become a much more successful, much more interesting organisation who is able to provide a much better service to your customers. I think too many companies structure themselves around an org chart, they structure themselves around the nature of somebody has to be in charge, and that person has to have 5 deputies, and each of those 5 deputies has to have 5 other reports in them, all the way down, and they structure their entire business around fulfilling the org chart. Instead of structuring their business around fulfilling the customer need, or fulfilling the mission of developing the new thing or creating the new technology or whatever it is, if you are structuring your business and entire organisation around the leadership structure, then you're going to force people back into offices, you're going to force people into this rigid thing, because that's what it is. Then what you're doing isn't business, what you're doing is theatre. And it's a sort of ego-based theatre around the leadership.

But if you are structuring your business around fulfilling the business mission, which is always dealing with your customers and developing new products, then allowing that mission to spread all the way out to the edges. Because you now have 100, thousands of remote offices. It's no longer about the location, it's no longer about the theatre, it's about the service, it's about the development, then those are going to be the successful companies. And we can see this you mentioned Google and Apple before. Google is a good example of this.

They said a few days ago that they are going to be having a hybrid model of most people will be working remotely until at least the end of next year. And some other technology companies -- Twitter is another good example of that -- they will be remote working forever. Sure, they'll have an office for some things, but the vast majority of people will be remote working, because it's not the point of businesses not to go to the office, the point of business is to do the business. And if it turns out, you can do the business better somewhere else, then the office is just a tool, which no longer fulfils the function that you bought it for. And so you can sell it or use it for something else.

How can organisations better anticipate the need of this new hybrid worker or maybe just fully remote workers and having people who are always working remotely? I mean, it's not true in itself, but obviously, now, a much larger percentage is working and will be working remotely or will work in this hybrid format. Or at least examples that I know of, have also made it mandatory that you will spend 25% of your time in the year, in the office. And that will be worked out with your teams, and your line managers, and so on.

Well, I think this is part of the whole business, the whole business reorganisation problem, which is that to be able to best serve the employees who are working remotely, then everybody in the organisation has to sit down and look at every single process that the organisations enacts and work out how to make those processes work remotely.

And one of the first thing you do before you do that is ask whether or not that process is necessary in the first place. You have to ask yourself, why do we do that? anyway? Right? before you make it into a digital thing that can be done remotely, you have to ask yourself why? And I would take that question, and I would ask it about the companies who are mandating 25% of the year you have to be in the office. And the question for that is, why 25%? Why not? 20%? Why not? 30%? If it's important, why not? 40%? If it's not important, why not 15%? And if it's not important, why do it at all? Like, what's the purpose of that? And so it's about asking those important questions of like, why do we do this way? Why do we do this at all? How does this thing that we're talking about, help us fulfil the mission that the business is set up to cater.

And every business, whether you're talking about a massive IT outsourcing business, or whether you're talking of as a small two-person restaurant in the street, they have a mission that they fulfil, and you have to and they have to ask themselves is this thing that we're doing now helping us to fulfil that mission. And for the vast majority of major corporations, enormous amounts of the things that they do doesn't actually help them fulfil the mission. It's just stuff that's grown like barnacles or something, it's just grown on top of the core activities of the business and what this pandemic has allowed us to do. And what this transformation to remote working is allowed us to do is to look at all of those things and say, hey, you know all of this stuff that we were doing before, none of that was helping? None of that was relevant, actually. So it's not a point of how do we do that remotely, it's just what we just wouldn't do that anymore. And that frees up those people to then fulfil the real mission of the business, whether that's customer service, or product development, or whatever else it is.

Last question. As you've tried to gaze into the future for example, or in the context of the workforce, what's the most unusual thing you've thought of, which perhaps is yet to happen? Or could happen? And what's something that you predicted which has completely happened in all that we're seeing today?

I think the most easily predicted thing that happened very, very quickly was the end of department stores. Here in the US. department stores were generally terrible anyway. But once nobody was allowed to go to them for a while, once we were allowed to go back to them, nobody did, because we'd lost the habit in the first place. And so there are many types of retail, for example, which I think that acceleration happened very, very quickly. And in terms of sort of curious ideas going forward.

I think that we will see in the senior leadership of companies and not so much the leadership so much as the most important employee, so like this, the head scientists, the most important engineers, intellectual property, cognitive people, I think we're going to see, see those people being held in almost in bubbles, they will be placed into extremely nice housing and extremely nice areas, extremely lovely workplaces, and laboratories and so on. But the biosecurity around those people will be extremely tight. We have a situation now globally, where many world leaders, notably the President of the United States, have all been infected, and are not doing well because of it. And I think in the future, for future pandemics, we'll have situations where corporations will look at their head of engineering, their head of development, their CEO, and say, as soon as anything starts to happen, like a pandemic, those people will go into a biosecurity lockdown.

And that will mean things like you will no longer ever be able to have an in-person meeting with the most important people in an organisation because they're too valuable to have in the business than to allow them to go and shake hands with somebody who hasn't washed their hands recently, or something like that. So I think there will be for the very, very, extremely valuable people there will be in a weird sort of luxury prison for them. But which will keep them well and keep them healthy. And that has lots of knock-on effects around say business travel, for example. So if the most important people are never allowed to meet anybody else, they will have representatives who go and do the travelling for them. And those people are allowed to be ill. But there'll be the professional being ill people. And I'm pretty sure we'll see that very, very soon. That the most important intellectuals in organisations will not be allowed out.

Last question, Ben. So what's the one thing that you miss? Either in and around Brooklyn, New York or around from the pre-COVID days that you want to get back? I mean, it could be a pizza for all.

No, the pizza is still very good. I miss the travel and I miss sitting in pavement cafes and drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I haven't been on a plane since the end of February. And this is the longest I've ever been in 20 years without travelling. I haven't had jet lag in 8 months. And that feels very strange. And hotel breakfasts. I miss hotel breakfasts. But, we'll be back to that pretty soon, I'm sure.

Updated On: 2020-10-08T14:50:53+05:30
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