The Future Of Work – How Collaboration Technology Is Changing Our Culture There’s No Turning Back Now

By David Danto, Director of UC Strategy and Research, Poly & Director of Emerging Technology, IMCCA

It’s sometimes challenging to recognize that one is going through a period of cultural upheaval in real time.  It often takes many years into the future for one to look back and realize what happened.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are, in fact going through such a period of technology driven upheaval right now.  The entire work model for knowledge workers – one that has been the norm in western cultures for decades – is completely falling apart.  The pandemic opened everyone’s eyes as to what was possible using collaboration technology to support remote work, and most organizations have either accepted the new model or are struggling in vain to put that genie back into the bottle.  We have undeniably entered a period of technology supported Hybrid Work, and everyone is doing their best trying to figure out what that means and how to adapt.

There is no denying the multiple surveys that have shown remote workers to be more productive than their in-office counterparts.  Unless you are an old-school control-freak manager unable to change, the model is a win for everyone.

  • Time is not wasted commuting to and from an office, which also helps the environment
  • Worker productivity soars (according to studies from before and during the pandemic) as the time not spent commuting usually goes into additional productive efforts
  • Work-life balance is improved
  • Attention can be paid to the family as needed during crises large and small, with an easy return to work instead of an extended travel time home beforehand
  • People can live wherever they prefer, not just in one geographic area
  • Organizations can hire the best and brightest employees regardless of where they live
  • Office footprints can be reduced, resulting in tremendous cost savings
  • Expenditures in electricity, HVAC, bandwidth, etc. can all be reduced, providing significant savings to the organization

The interesting thing about Hybrid Work, though, is that while most firms seem to support the idea, no two firms have agreed upon what it really means.

Along with that reality, one has to consider that the benefits of knowledge workers in-person working at large enterprises have always been over-exaggerated.  To quote myself from an earlier article, “The common excuse that most of the remote working nay-sayers give to justify their positions is that bringing people into the same space causes some “magic” to happen from the impromptu collisions and connections.  Bumping into a colleague in a meeting or at the water-cooler is supposed to be the genesis of this magic interaction. 

I honestly have never understood people’s acceptance of this model of organizations – as if we all worked in a 1950’s small business.  Yes, if you are employed at a local retail store, you may gain the advantage of having all your co-workers in the same place all the time.  Realistically, however, many knowledge workers and I haven’t worked in an office where everyone was in the same location, same city, or even the same country for over two decades.  What good is in-person, impromptu “magic” when your colleagues are rarely in the same building with you?  Clearly, successful distributed workforces need to be able to develop that so-called magic using collaboration tools to truly be effective – and, when those tools are present on a computer or mobile device, it’s just as clear that that knowledge worker can be anywhere where they can access those tools and a solid internet connection.”

The collaboration tools that allow this Hybrid Working to happen are now finally mainstream, reliable and inexpensive.  Suites that allow for instant messaging, voice calling, video calling, collaborative document creation, whiteboarding and many other features facilitate this new future.  Meetings are no longer in a building, they are in the cloud.  Documents are no longer on a PC, they are also in the cloud – and version control for them is no longer necessary as everyone is working on the same document simultaneously.

The interesting thing about Hybrid Work, though, is that while most firms seem to support the idea, no two firms have agreed upon what it really means.  Apple for example, recently mandated that everyone be in the office three days a week, but then rescinded that requirement as it simply wasn’t working.  Many other firms have also discovered that formulas for being in-office fail every time.  As soon as organizations tell people how many days they must be in-office versus working from home, they’ve completely lost sight of the advantages of working remotely.  Organizations need to hire smart knowledge workers that can self-determine the best place to work from on any given day – at the office, at home, with a client, at a seminar, etc.  If they don’t perform, then they aren’t suitable for the job.  If they do, then there is no reason to remove their work location autonomy.

When organizations come to the inevitable realization that ‘the home is the new office, and the office is the new offsite’ the future of work becomes easier to see.  It is plainly ridiculous for employees to commute to an office to sit at a tiny, open-plan desk to do individual work and connect with global colleagues using technology that can be just as easily accessed from a remote office. There is zero advantage to doing it that way, other than supporting a manager who may lack the skill to manage remote employees.  An organization’s office then has to be a place that offers advantages that working from home cannot provide.   It has to transform from a place where individual work is done to a place where group and collaborative work is done.  It should be a place where employees can schedule spaces and then schedule a time to converge with their colleagues when that would be helpful to a project or process.  Once we all stop pretending that day-to-day interactions have to happen in the same building, we can evolve those buildings into spaces that can really provide benefits for group collaboration. 

These new, smaller footprint offices do need to install modern collaboration technology in their rooms.  Many of the newer systems available today are now smart enough to perform the needed meeting tasks without user intervention.  Starting a meeting, aiming cameras at who is speaking, showing everyone in person and remote equally, transcribing and much more are all tasks done by today’s (far less expensive and available off-the-shelf) collaboration systems.  The days of expensive custom programming and multiple component systems are over for all but the very largest specialty rooms. 

So, when we look back at this period in a few years, we’ll plainly see how office work changed, people’s choices about where and how to live changed, and cities and communities changed to adapt to the new norms.  The future of work is here now, but do hold on, as ‘the ride ain’t over yet.’