Crises are ruthless drivers of efficiency. Challenged by new constraints, society must adapt to less capital, fewer people, fewer resources, and – in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic – the constraint of self-isolation. Think of the pandemic and resulting economic crisis as an accelerant into the future of knowledge work: cultural, economic, and technological scenarios that would have played out slowly are fast-tracked.
For years, designers and technologists have predicted that the future of knowledge work would be remote and distributed. As we live this reality today, what does the future hold? The fundamentals of knowledge work will largely remain the same: people will always need to find ways of collaborating and problem-solving together. How we do that, however, will radically change the experience – and impact – of knowledge work.
Work From Home, Play In The Office
Even before the crisis, factors such as rising healthcare costs, urban density and costs of living, longer commute times, and better technology to support remote teams were propelling the rise of the distributed gig economy for knowledge work. With about 40 percent of the U.S. workforce primarily using a laptop to do their job, companies are forced to become more comfortable with – and trusting of – remote productivity. When they are satisfied with that, they need no longer be wedded to the idea of hiring people locally. Companies can and will look far and wide for the best talent. This will gradually lead to a more fluid, distributed workforce, especially in high-skilled, in-demand professions.
Workspaces will transform to accommodate the ebb and flow of contract workers bringing their own devices. We will see an inversion of traditional norms: productively working from home will be the expected routine, while heading into the office will be an exception reserved primarily for fun, connection, and culture. When people do co-locate, they will need flexible areas to work together with different levels of formality, and they will also expect the casualness of a hip café. Sterility will be a significant turnoff.
At home, cameras that track you around the room, portable lighting that flatters, headphones that cancel out the kids, and microphones that isolate your voice as an input will all see a massive surge in importance. Hopefully, this will lead to more comfortable, healthy, and productive workdays that blend into the home environment – an experience unlike anything we have now.
New Tools For A New Culture
If tools to connect and collaborate online have existed for years, we might well ask, why are they still so bad? The tools knowledge workers rely on today reflect mostly historic and dated in-person behavioral norms translated into digital experiences.
The behavior that makes us empathetic and efficient in person does not always have the same effect in a virtual context. We are already starting to experience phenomena like “Zoom fatigue” – when the brain has to work harder to process non-verbal cues across a digital connection and maintain a line of focus across several individuals and screens at once. Trying to emulate our existing work and education behaviors in the design of collaboration tools is not innovation. Sharing a screen to provide a collective context for conversation is the equivalent of someone presenting in a meeting – in other words, old school. Real-time co-creation and asynchronous written feedback with distributed teams will be the new school.
Rather than digital tools imitating our historic professional routines, the experience of using these tools going forward will be crafted first for digital work. We might see the advent of avatars for digital collaboration that could reduce some of the cognitive load of being on camera while sitting still for hours each day. We may also see the rapid adoption of digital whiteboards that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to support asynchronous collaboration and help participants make better sense of content and respond to it more effectively.
If ever there was a time for a killer team-working application for virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), or augmented reality (AR) hardware, the time for adoption is now. Alas, we still seem a distance away from devices that are high-quality enough, cheap enough, and widespread enough for rapid adoption. I am encouraged by the direction this work is going and feel the time is very close for donning some lightweight glasses and entering a shared virtual project room or rooms with distributed colleagues, clients, and customers. Start-ups like Spatial and vSpatial are great examples. If you doubt large virtual gatherings will ever catch on, a cool 12 million people tuned in live to experience Travis Scott’s spectacular concert inside the Fortnite game.
Artificial Intelligence As Master And Slave
For any knowledge worker profession that can be described as a series of processes, there is probably a startup trying to replace it with AI. We have already seen AI winnowing out administrative and procedural occupations, and this crisis will only accelerate that.
Historic ideas around performance management will be one of the most significant human factors that will enable or thwart progress. Our current understanding of management and productivity tracking is inherited from the era of the third Industrial Revolution. With the increased ability to keep tabs on an employee’s every move using AI, will we create a future that relentlessly measures and optimizes our performance? Or will managers have greater trust in the growing distributed workforce?
It is easy to be wooed by the promise of AI: the potential to take the busywork out of the day, build out the details of uniquely human ideas, and break down geographic barriers through robust voice and language translation applications. Yet pervasive digital connection monitored by AI raises myriad issues around human agency and privacy, and trust.
The Promise and Peril Of Acceleration
Distributed work, digital tools, and the effects of AI are not new forces, but rapid acceleration has amplified their benefits and imperfections. With fewer geographic constraints and a more diverse contract workforce, companies can more easily improve intellectual, socioeconomic, and demographic diversity. Yet an AI-driven future may also find companies quantifying metrics around individual productivity or value, contributing to a hyper-monitored, ratings-driven workforce.
What once were theoretical concerns are suddenly pushed into the foreground and in need of urgent attention. It is up to those fortunate enough to envision, design, and influence the future of work to consider the ethical implications of our new reality at an individual, business, cultural, and environmental level. As we accelerate into the future, there is a reason for concern, but also optimism.
This article was originally published on Forbes.