One of my favorite memes circulated broadly in 2020 joked about who led the digital transformation of organizations. With the increased remote work and the wide acceptance of digital tools, people’s work has been permanently changed.
Working at the intersection between HR, technology, and physical office design, I have observed three significant shifts across industries and job functions. People are working more flexibly, more asynchronously, and more digitally. Adopting technology tools can amplify the impacts of these changes on people’s physical, mental, and social well-being.
Flexibility in “Where” and “When”
One of the most significant changes brought about by the pandemic is the emphasis on flexibility in the workplace. While many companies initially advocated for remote work as a temporary measure, some have started to revise their policies and add more restrictions as the world slowly recovers. However, some companies like Atlassian continue to embrace a remote-first approach, recognizing its benefits and possibilities. This shift has allowed employees more freedom in choosing where they work, whether from the comfort of their homes, co-working spaces, or even while traveling. Additionally, organizations are exploring flexibility in terms of when work is done. Caretakers, for example, have greatly appreciated the flexibility in work schedules that allows them to integrate their multiple roles and responsibilities better. Some companies (Kickstarter 1 as an example) have even taken it further by implementing a four-day workweek, recognizing the value of work-life balance and the importance of rest and rejuvenation in maintaining productivity and well-being. Flexibility used to be seen as a privilege granted only to a few. It’s becoming more of an expectation for employees and is increasingly used as an HR strategy for attracting and retaining top talent.
Embracing Asynchronous Collaboration
Before the pandemic, asynchronous collaboration, regularly practiced by a smaller percentage of your employees, became essential for most teams to collaborate efficiently and maintain productivity. Asynchronous collaboration emphasizes diligent documentation, over-communication, and digital tools to facilitate collaboration beyond traditional meeting settings. It allows team members to contribute and provide feedback at their own pace, regardless of time zones or availability. Effective asynchronous collaboration requires good written communication skills, aligned norms for information-sharing, and an organizational culture of outcome orientation and trust. Organizations that invested in asynchronous collaboration have reduced their reliance on constant synchronous communication, which frees individuals to work on their schedules while still contributing to the collective progress of the team.
Higher Fluency in Basic Video-Conferencing Technology
The pandemic forced people to adapt to video-conferencing technology out of necessity quickly. Overnight, video calls became the default mode of communication for distributed teams, and virtual meetings replaced in-person gatherings. Everyone got upskilled in the basics of video calls and chats. People have quickly learned how to troubleshoot standard audio and video issues, such as adjusting microphone and camera settings, managing audio output, and using virtual backgrounds and filters to enhance the overall meeting experience. Moreover, people have become more comfortable using chat functions during meetings to interact with participants and content differently, whether sharing links, asking questions, or providing real-time feedback. As a result, people now have higher expectations for smooth virtual or hybrid experiences. At the same time, people had many opportunities to practice and perfect virtual and hybrid meetings, where some participants were on-site in a meeting room. In contrast, others joining remotely still present challenges. In-room audio-visual (AV) setups often require technical support, and seamless virtual and in-person integration requires thoughtful agenda design. Although the demand for hybrid meetings has increased, producing a successful experience still relies on technical experts (e.g., IT/Facilities specialists, event planning teams, and meeting coordinators). Hybrid meetings are the most difficult to plan, coordinate, and conduct.
How are these changes impacting people? It’s tempting to think there is a silver bullet that can magically bring the best of both worlds: empower people with flexibility and maintain close control of engagement and performance. There is no straightforward answer when it comes to changing ways of working. As you rethink the employee experience, consider the impact of these changes on people and dig deeper for the root issue that needs resolution.
Blurred Boundaries Deepens Connections but also leads to “Always On.”
The shift in work dynamics brought about by technology has positively and negatively impacted individuals. On one hand, the move to remote work created a sense of equity, as everyone’s video square was roughly the same size on screen, regardless of their position in the organization. This flattened hierarchy allowed for more inclusive and democratic discussions, where ideas and contributions were valued based on merit rather than individuals’ physical location. Keeping cameras on during meetings also allowed people to get to know each other more personally, as glimpses into each other’s homes and lives became common. Pets and children occasionally made cameo appearances, and personal artifacts like photos or books became conversation starters, fostering a sense of connection and camaraderie among colleagues.
However, this constant virtual interaction has also led to what is now commonly called “Zoom fatigue,”2 The term describes the exhaustion resulting from excessive video conferencing and the constant need to be present and engaged on-screen. The absence of physical boundaries between work and personal space and the expectation of being “always on” has blurred the lines between professional and personal life. Notifications and messages can arrive anytime, making it challenging for individuals to disconnect and establish healthy boundaries. While technology has provided the freedom to work from anywhere, it has also created the expectation of constant availability, often leading to increased stress and burnout if not managed effectively.
Connected on Tasks and More, but Burdened with Information Overload
Adopting digital collaboration tools has facilitated task-based connections and opened avenues for social connections within teams. With the shift to remote work, individuals increasingly rely on digital platforms and chat tools to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues. These tools have facilitated task-based conversations and file sharing, creating opportunities for social interactions and team bonding. People use chats at work to share snippets of their personal lives, such as photos of vacation highlights, special occasions with loved ones, or even a link to a great song that boosts the mood. These casual interactions foster a sense of belonging and help build stronger relationships among team members. Workplace productivity and communication tools are catching up with what people are experiencing as consumers outside of work.
However, as teams navigate this new digital landscape, they still learn to discern between multiple communication channels and establish explicit norms. Overloading employees with new applications and tools without shared understanding and guidelines, important task-related messages, or urgent information can quickly get buried in a conversation filled with lively gifs and unrelated content. The challenge lies in striking the right balance between task-focused communication and social connections, ensuring that important information is effectively communicated without getting lost in the noise of informal conversations.
Invisible Connections Become More Visible – Where Would These Insights Take Us?
The virtual work environment has made previously invisible connections more visible. The virtual equivalent of informal conversations is taking a new form in 1:1 calls and chats. These interactions, hitherto only observable anecdotally in the in-person setting, now leave a digital trace that can be aggregated and analyzed. This transition has provided organizations valuable insights into their teams’ social fabric and culture. Organizational Network Analysis 3 using passive data can now be more readily leveraged as a strategic tool for HR leaders to influence corporate culture and performance. For example, studies 4 have shown that stronger ties become even stronger when teams shift to virtual working, while weak ties start to get weaker. Research 4 also shows that weak and bridging ties are crucial for cross-community information exchange and innovation, as they facilitate the flow of diverse ideas and perspectives. Recognizing the importance of these connections, HR leaders interested in promoting innovation could focus on nurturing these relationships and creating opportunities for new cross-team relationships to emerge.
A Look Ahead
As we look to the future of the workplace, technology will continue to play a crucial role in shaping how we work. As remote and hybrid work models become pervasive, organizations will increasingly explore innovative solutions to overcome proximity bias 5 in remote collaboration.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are emerging as potential solutions to create immersive and engaging virtual meeting experiences. For example, in the latest demo of Apple’s Vision Pro VR headset 6, the company showcased the possibilities of VR-enhanced collaboration by creating an immersive and infinitely expandable environment for the user to toggle intuitively between various productivity and collaboration applications. AR solutions like interactive displays have already entered many updated corporate offices. The concept of life-sized projections or holograms, as depicted in countless sci-fi movies, has already been proven possible with current technology. These advancements can potentially redefine how teams collaborate remotely, creating a more immersive, inclusive, and interactive work environment.
Recognizing that only some jobs are ready to plunge into VR/AR, organizations can now do a few things to make the most of their existing technology and physical spaces. For example, when designing hybrid experiences, notice how room acoustics, camera placement, and lighting can be crucial in creating an optimal collaboration environment. The highest-performing hybrid teams are thinking beyond meeting the basic requirements of high-quality video, audio, and screen-sharing capabilities. They are actively thinking about creating more equitable connections among meeting participants by experimenting with the shape of meeting rooms, the seats’ orientation, and the screens’ placement.
Additionally, designing experiences that help people flourish also means recognizing human limitations. For example, to manage cognitive load, individuals and teams need to change their mindset and consider reducing the stimuli for a designated period for more focused productivity and outcome. There could be no meetings and muted notifications during agreed-upon focus work time. HR can work with teams to develop these new norms and provide managers and individuals with training on collaborating asynchronously most efficiently.
The past years’ events have significantly shaped the future of work. Organizations must adapt and embrace the changing working methods as technology evolves rapidly. By leveraging the benefits of flexibility, asynchronous collaboration, and technology, companies can create a work environment that empowers individuals, fosters innovation, and drives sustainable success in the digital age.
1 Kickstarter is officially on a 4-day workweek after a successful pilot, https://bit.ly/3SA0VJj, EBN, January 23, 2023, 3:45 p.m. EST.
2 Stanford researchers identify four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their simple fixes, https://bit.ly/46dgk5r, February 23, 2021.
3 Organisational Network Analysis Can Unlock Undiscovered Innovation, https://bit.ly/3sqBhfu, Veldhoen Company, April 20, 2023.
4 The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers, https://bit.ly/46aed2i, Nature Human Behavior, September 9, 2021.
5 What Is Proximity Bias and How Can Managers Prevent It? https://bit.ly/47633gi, Gleb Tsipursky, Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2022.
6 Introducing Apple Vision Pro: Apple’s first spatial computer, https://bit.ly/3SzU4j7, Apple Press Release, June 5, 2023.