The Future of Work

Physicist Neils Bohr once famously said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

Well, I’ll make a prediction anyway: the so-called post-pandemic revolution in office culture — you know, the future where everyone gets to work at home in sweats and comes into the office for a performance review, holiday party or some other necessity a few times a year — isn’t going to happen.

In spite of rapid advances in technology (Zoom, et al), health precautions, and the new employee-centric workplace, it’s difficult imagining broadband connections replacing human connections. In a pinch (or force majeure as we all experienced over the past year), interacting with a bunch of tiles on your screen will do, but in the long-term, for all sorts of reasons, we need human connection.

I’m reminded of a classic TV spot from United Airlines in 1990, when the boss of some firm that just lost its oldest client tells his team they’re going to fan out across the U.S. to have a face-to-face (they hadn’t invented the F2F acronym back then) with every single customer. “But Ben, that’s over 200 cities,” protests someone. “I don’t care,” the boss replies as he starts handing out United tickets like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.

It was an effective spot; more than 30 years later, I’ll bet a lot of people still remember it. Why? Because it had the ring of truth to it. Despite the logistical advantage of remote work, there is no substitute for being there. Effective work teams are built on relationships and trust, and those things are built by being with one another.

The squawk box: Can somebody adjust the volume on that damn thing?

I recall my time at Visa about 25 years ago when we were working on an intractable PR problem involving a then-novel product called a debit card. We needed some deep technological expertise and the best source we had was an employee who lived permanently in Hawaii and would call in to our meetings via a “squawk box” — those six-inch speaker boxes that would amplify a phone connection and make the speaker sound like a bird caught in a jet engine (thus the nickname for the device). What should have been collaboration turned into something simply to be endured. (How Visa’s culture could allow a senior tech employee to permanently work from Hawaii is a whole other blog post).

As noted, technology has improved immensely since then. A lot of us remember those video conference rooms we’d pile into for a meeting with colleagues in different time zones, and having to endure stop-action lags, poor audio and lost connections. That’s all gone now. They don’t call it Zoom for nothing — it’s fast and pretty much flawless.

I know I’m starting to sound like a “back-in-the-day” geezer, but some things just don’t change, or change very slowly — human nature included. How about that meeting when you need a commitment from someone? Are they looking you in the eye when they make it? What about that hallway debrief after the meeting when you realize you’d completely missed an important point someone was making? Or how about that impromptu lunch when you learned about some hidden team dysfunction that was holding up production?

But I also understand that we’ve come out of this pandemic with new insights about how we can do many things differently, including work, where we spend about a third of our lives. After all, as Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” I don’t think anyone believes we’re going back to the 9-5-5 work week (9 to 5, 5 days a week). That model was already corroding before the pandemic. What the great hunkering-down taught us is that there are other modes of work that are equally effective as the traditional mode.

So, we’re trending toward some type of hybrid model in the near-term, but I believe it will be a bumpy transition. Hybrids create many more variables. Business managers will be focused on productivity and efficiency. HR managers will be focused on employee satisfaction. The two concerns may not always be aligned. Plus, who picks the hybrid schedule? The employee? The manager? What about a critical team meeting? If half the team is in the room, can the other half Zoom in? And how can we be sure Zoomers aren’t indulging in Jeffrey Toobin-like behavior? How do you assign work space if the teams roll through on divergent schedules? We may be going hybrid, but it will be a while before it settles into the new normal.

In the longer-term, the rise of AI and other technologies may exert an even more profound influence on how we work. Remote interfaces may become so immersive that they eclipse a face-to-face experience. But that’s just speculation at this point, which is exactly the point that Neils Bohr was making about predictions — they’re hard, especially about the future.

Mr. Watson, no need to come into the office now that I’ve invented this thing.

One thing is certain. No matter what form the new workplace takes, it will have to foster human connection on a meaningful level — whether it’s through a face-to-face meeting, a plane flight to meet with a client, or an AI-powered virtual reality platform. When Alexander Graham Bell made the first call on his new invention, the telephone, in 1876 to his assistant Thomas Watson, he said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Technology may enable us to work with a button-down shirt on top and sweat pants on the bottom, but it will never replace human connection.

One comment

  1. Russ – Nice piece. I remember that ad very well. It inspired me through much of my career. The personal touch – it’s hard to duplicate without the “personal” part. No number of Memoji’s, Stickers, #images or Zoom calls can match the impact of a visit to “that old friend who fired us this morning…” JEP is good stuff, keep it coming!

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