Shared space which is no ‘place’: building the virtual office

As with many other aspects of business operations, the past year and a half has accelerated an existing trend towards more distributed working patterns. But what can we expect to happen next? Hybrid working is here to stay: information workers are looking at a new complex interplay between co-located and distributed ways of working. Many companies announced plans for a September shift from primarily home-working to a mandate for being in the office at least a few days each week. As ‘office day’ approaches, however, tech giants Apple, Google and Microsoft have already delayed their mandated return-to-office date by at least a month; food delivery platforms Lyft and DoorDash have committed to remote working until at least 2022; and others (including DXC) are committing to 'virtual first’. Parts of Australia are already in a renewed lockdown which has disrupted return-to-office plans, and other countries may find themselves following suit. ‘Office day’ seems set in sand rather than in stone.

Shared space which is no ‘place’: building the virtual office

Furthermore, business leaders have reason to be trepidatious about who will come back to the office at all: in a phenomenon being dubbed ‘the great resignation', research posits that 40 percent of the global workforce is considering quitting their jobs. April saw the biggest spike in US employees quitting their jobs on record, according to the Department of Labor. Employees who have been on furlough or made redundant through the pandemic are now reluctant to return to their roles – at least, not for the same wages as before. And this isn’t only a problem for Western businesses: in China many workers are giving up the high-pressure, high-flying urban life for a ‘lie flat’ mentality seeking a life of lower stress with fewer high-pressure social and material expectations.

..employers need to adopt the right working practices and tools which will help their teams create a shared ‘space’ while eliminating the need to be in a specific ‘place’ (the office.) 

How can organizations motivate workers’ enthusiasm and loyalty in this turbulent time of shifting expectations? Employee experience (in the sense of their feelings about work) is likely to become one huge differentiator for employers seeking to attract and retain the best talent. My colleague Alex Kokkonen will be producing a report later this year about the importance of employee experience in driving engagement which unlocks an organization’s core expertise. But this shift towards experience isn’t about ping-pong tables and free organic juice boxes: this is about giving people the flexibility to work when they want, where they want. To achieve that, employers need to adopt the right working practices and tools which will help their teams create a shared ‘space’ while eliminating the need to be in a specific ‘place’ (the office.)

Figure 1: Some of the fundamental shifts in practice arising from increasingly digitally-mediated ways of working.

Some of the fundamental shifts in practice arising from increasingly digitally-mediated ways of working.

For those unfamiliar with Wardley Maps, the top of the diagram represents a component or concept that is closest to the user’s experience. The bottom of the map contains the components that a user never sees or thinks about directly but which form the building blocks of that experience. The left of the diagram is those components or concepts that are new and innovative, while the right is those that are ubiquitous. (When I drink a cup of tea, I don’t concern myself with the electricity plant or kettle manufacturers who made that happen.)

As we described in our prior report Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace, one of the most meaningful aspects of a co-located workspace is the constant reinforcement of social cues about organizational culture, including cues about hierarchy and status. These are so ingrained in our experience of office culture that they operate as baseline assumptions which are so fundamental we never question or discuss them: what FT editor-at-large Gillian Tett calls “social silences” in her recent book Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life. This map posits that emergent practices from virtual working will be highly disruptive to some of our long-established norms for collaboration, learning, workplace inclusion, and negotiating the complexities around status. 

Businesses that want to outplay the competition in this landscape need to do more than just building a ‘virtual office’ to replicate the dynamics of their physical HQ: they need to explore what they could do with virtual environments that could never be achieved in the office. Our memory and cognition are spatially oriented. For information workers staring at the same screen eight or more hours a day with little differentiation between tasks, the world of work may seem like one long Groundhog Day tunnel of undifferentiated documents, emails and meetings. To optimize our mental working environments, we need better tools that help us make the most of our cognitive power instead of working against it.

We currently have a critical failure of imagination to communicate intangible ideas in tangible, visceral ways. There is a small but powerful information revolution happening through companies like Alaira in the UK, which creates immersive data visualizations to help companies explore their information in a more intuitive way.  But this field is still very much in its infancy; the primacy of PowerPoint remains strong.

...a more immersive internet is coming to you, whether you want it or not.  

The world’s most notable technology providers, led by Microsoft and Facebook, are betting heavily on a ‘metaverse’ future of mixed physical/digital realities. For the present, adoption of immersive collaborative environments continues to be largely experimental in small pockets for test events like a one-off all-hands, or ‘toy’ use-cases like one team’s series of meetings, rather than an accepted norm of business operations. However, the industry leaders who create our collaborative toolkits are making big bets that today’s toys are tomorrow’s tools: a more immersive internet is coming to you, whether you want it or not.  Like all evolving working practices and working tools, the workforce must familiarize itself with these new paradigms before they get left behind. Starting with some low-stakes ‘toy’ explorations is one way to understand what these technologies can do to promote richer collaborative experiences.

Our forthcoming report Braving New Worlds: Virtual Spaces for Enterprise Collaboration lays out the case for adopting (or not) a ‘virtual office’: an immersive collaborative environment which allows employees to invite one another into their ‘thinking space’ no matter where they are.


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