Guest Post by Amy Rosen of PLASTARC and Matthew Ezold of Bala

In a few short months, the disruption caused by COVID has caused major shifts in where and how people work. The mass transition to telework has been challenging for many, but the impulse to fully regress back to “normal” should be questioned. Looking past COVID, the future of work is supporting people where they are: whether that is together, distributed, or—ideally—a hybrid of the two. We’ve now experienced what happens when work follows the user instead of the other way around. To move forward, we must first reconnect with the purpose of the workplace: to support people in collaborative work.

We have just witnessed the sudden emergence of something that looks much more like the future of work most of us imagined. Being “open-for-business” suddenly means supporting a distributed workforce, and it is now clear that many of the “obstacles” to distributed working were not as insurmountable as we thought. Teams worldwide are learning how a distributed workforce can maintain or even improve culture, community, wellness and organizational performance. 

Below, we explore three key questions about the current telework moment:

  1. How can technology support workplaces that are both safe and high-performance?
  2. Will this shift last, and should we want it to?
  3. What can we learn about navigating disruption and change?

Technology in Service of Wellness

Visit any grocery store to see proof that attempts to direct user behavior are usually only partially successful. Tactics such as one-way aisles, “stand here” signage and requiring six feet of clearance require “buy-in” that is not easy to build overnight and changing established norms creates unanticipated consequences. We are seeing a similar response to changes in workplace norms in support of contact tracing and social distancing with lessons learned about where technology can best support a return to the workplace.

Inform vs Enforce with Workplace Management Systems

Location data is a powerful tool, but there may be a gap between what we can do and what we should do. Attempting to influence user behavior with location tracking can cause issues, ranging from privacy concerns to stigmatization of people who are thought to be safety risks. Instead of tracking individual user locations, we suggest tracking space usage and providing that information back as a service to users. Look for room booking platforms that incorporate distancing into seating allocations and that combine space management with team management to make scheduling cohorts easier. Provide a real-time dashboard that allows staff to understand current space occupancy levels and allows users to change their own movement patterns without being forced. And consider improving the dashboard with indoor air quality information to actively demonstrate efforts being made to keep staff safe. 

Contact Tracing and AI Platforms

When paired with widely available cameras or sensor packages, AI can create a virtual detection mesh around and throughout a workplace. By merging building and user location data, such systems can enable building-wide contact tracing while also measuring the impact of social distancing efforts. Until now, due to a lack of interoperability standards and low demand, most of these integrated systems have been bespoke. Expect that to change as early adopters drive standardization and demonstrate long-term benefits. 

It is important to note that contract tracing is not a complete solution. It can only capture a slice of user activity, and it does so retroactively. It will be most effective when paired with programs that encourage self-assessment and offer increased sick leave so that people can self-isolate and telework when they suspect they may be ill. 

Any large-scale deployment of sensing systems should have a clear post-COVID use case. This helps to amortize the cost across multiple use cases and providing a clear long-term benefit will improve overall adoption rates and perceived usefulness.

Change that’s Made to Stick 

Even though there is the potential to deliver a more flexible experience for many employees, it is not a given that the recent shift in workplace habits will last. Maintaining and optimizing the mix between telework and physical offices will require sustained investment and support. As a larger proportion of a company’s people choose to telework, there is a natural incentive to invest in making it effective. New training and on-boarding resources will be needed. Surveys and performance metrics can help to identify the tools and technology people want and can provide ongoing feedback on their effectiveness. 

Just as significant as any tools, however, are cultural and policy factors. Historically, those who were not physically present in the office might be treated as if they were less committed to their jobs or might miss out on important conversations and opportunities. This must change. Companies must give distributed workers a level of power and connection comparable to their in-office colleagues. 

Additional questions of equity arise around who should come to the office. COVID-19 poses a disproportionate risk to certain populations, and employers must take this into account. Changes in operations and support may be necessary to “level the playing field” for people who are most at risk. 

Be watchful for potential negative impacts of these new ways of working that could undermine its sustainability long term. Encourage movement throughout the day and breaks from screen time, especially for those people who are now primarily teleworking. Be aware that fully isolating people within a physical environment may negate the benefits of coming into the office. Figure out how to transmit not just work, but culture and social connection digitally. If people are resisting the needed changes, address this proactively so that it does not morph into resentment.

Disruption as Change Agent 

This moment has ignited the most successful technology adoption program in the history of the modern workplace. After years of advocating for collaboration technology and measuring the change in usage in single percentage point increases over time, we saw a dramatic shift in just a few short weeks. This can offer some lessons about future change efforts. 

When organized against a common organizational threat, users develop a group mindset that focuses them on overcoming challenges together. However, we need not wait for a crisis each time we want to push for transformation. We can use these lessons to build a new framework for change, provided we acknowledge the following:

  • Real change carries risk of failure. 
  • Disruption must be inevitable and unstoppable; attempting to shake things up with artificial controls or limits will keep change efforts at the individual level and not create the necessary group dynamic.
  • Change may not go as envisioned. Avoid over-controlling the response. As members of the organization determine what they value—which is a critical part of disruption-fueled change—the effort must be responsive.
  • Disruption can’t be localized; it must be system-wide. For disruption to create lasting change, it has to impact all facets of business and wipe away existing structures—at least temporarily.

When teams change in response to challenging times, they are forced to reexamine organizational priorities. The result is value-driven innovation. From opportunities to embrace new technologies to renewed emphasis on wellness and comfort, it is clear that organizations can learn and grow by meeting the challenges of this moment. In order to ensure progress and resilience moving forward, we must emphasize that disruption can be a powerful force for change.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in Work Design Magazine. Read the full piece here.

Amy Rosen is a sociospatial designer at PLASTARC.

Matthew Ezold is a digital ecosystem planner at Bala.