Work, reinvented: Tech will drive the workplace evolution

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In an early May blog post, Google chief executive officer (CEO) Sundar Pichai shared the company’s vision for its workplace future—over a year after the covid-19 pandemic forced offices around the world to shutter almost overnight and employees suddenly shifted to working remotely using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and a host of other virtual collaboration tools.

“The future of work is flexibility,” he said, adding that Google was “reimagining a hybrid workplace to help us collaborate effectively across many work environments.” That includes testing multi-purpose workspaces and developing advanced video technology that “creates greater equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually,” he explained.

Google is far from alone in its efforts to keep up with an unprecedented post-pandemic office evolution. Citigroup recently announced that a majority of workers would be designated as hybrid, working at least three days per week in the office. Ford has said that 30,000 of its North American office workers would be allowed to work under a flexible hybrid model. Nearly every organization, across every industry is trying to determine how to navigate and respond to changing employee expectations and sentiments around how and where they work.

For example, EY’s 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey revealed that nine in ten employees want continued work flexibility, while more than half of employees globally would consider quitting their jobs if post-pandemic flexibility is not provided.

In addition, employee expectations for work flexibility don’t necessarily match that of their leadership. According to a recent report conducted by global market research company Ipsos and premium audio brand EPOS, 53% of decision makers think that the majority of employees will spend more time in the physical workplace over the next year, rather than remotely, whereas just 26% of employees think the same.

Employees are also demanding more and better technology to promote increasingly flexible ways of working and more sophisticated options for collaboration on and off-site. The Ipsos/EPOS study, for example, found that 89% of all end users currently experience challenges when having virtual meetings or workshops. The research found that some 63% of global end users experience issues during business conversations on a regular basis because of poor sound quality. The most common problems include background noise (32%), interferences on the line (26%), and asking for information to be repeated (23%).

The move to remote work has highlighted a need for resiliency, agility, and flexibility not just in how businesses operate but how their employees work. The current upheaval from an all-remote environment to hybrid possibilities is a similarly disruptive moment that requires technology innovation to equalize the work environment for all—those that work from home or another remote location, as well as those physically in the office.

“The onset of the covid-19 pandemic was like a time machine that suddenly propelled us tens of years into the future,” said Paul Silverglate, vice chairman and US technology sector leader at Deloitte, speaking about how networks, services, and devices rallied to effectively support the shift to working and schooling from home. “The underlying technology for these new behaviors was truly tested and, for the most part, held up under increased connectivity demands. As well as we have adapted, we have hit the limits of what our current technology can deliver.”

Investing in innovative technology is crucial for employee experience

As organizations emerge from the pandemic, more than two-thirds (68%) of CEOs plan a major investment in data and technology, while 61% plan to undertake a new transformation initiative, according to EY’s 2021 CEO Imperative survey. The question is, how can companies invest in innovative technology to boost the employee experience in a hybrid workplace? After all, it is becoming crystal-clear that the traditional conference room with a table, chairs and speakerphone will no longer cut it as people return to a new, hybrid workplace.

Firms like EY have made big investments, including a conference room that offers an immersive meeting experience with life-sized touch screens and integrated cameras and speakers. Increasingly, 360-degree cameras, microphones, and speakers are likely to be built into gathering places and the number of screens increased, transforming the conference room into a “Zoom room,” according to Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is revamping offices, including its own, for new modes of working.

Google too is creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with large screens showing the faces of people dialing in by video conference, so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.

These moves reflect the consensus from the Ipsos/EPOS study, which found that workers and leaders are continuing to see the benefits of holding meetings virtually. Some 79% of end users recognize the benefits of video for virtual meetings, an increase of 7% from 2020. Along with savings in time and cost compared with face-to-face meetings, 21% of decision makers say that video meetings help them feel closer to their team, and 17% believe it establishes trust in working relationships.

Whatever the future of the workplace looks like, it should be aligned with the company’s culture as well as its efforts to recruit and retain top talent.

Many financial companies, for example, considered in-person collaboration too important to lose so asked people to come into the office early on in the economic reopening. In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, some firms are giving up their headquarters and becoming fully-remote organizations.

The majority of companies, however, are taking a hybrid approach: Accenture’s 2021 Future of Work study of 9,000 workers around the world found that a vast majority of employees (83%) say a hybrid model would be optimal for a productive and healthy workforce.

“Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity more broadly—inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a recent report. “All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”

Find out more about EPOS ’s audio solutions for virtual collaboration here. And listen to the EPOS podcast here.

This content was produced by EPOS. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.