We’re beginning to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. But many of the changes that the virus has thrust upon us will not go away when the emergency subsides. Our working habits, for instance, will emerge vastly different when all this is over. The office environment is no doubt primed for the most radical changes.
“Everything we have gone through since spring 2020 has bolstered the acceleration of smart working amidst the health emergency, prompting us to ask ourselves as to whether physical office spaces still make sense”, points out Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner at Carlo Ratti Associati. He adds, “while I don’t question the convenience and sustainability of smart working, I find digital spaces still lacking in terms of value when compared with their physical counterparts. I’m referring to the spontaneity of meetings, the sharing of ideas and a continuous engagement with diversity”.
The ‘Hub and Spoke’ model
“The flexibility that we have discovered with smart working can help us imagine alternative and certainly more environmentally sustainable models: Less commuting means less traffic and congestion-free public transport and a better quality of life”, Ratti adds. He further points out that “in many cases, however, the office remains important for our relationships, generating new ideas and maintaining a shared corporate culture. I’m sure that it won’t disappear entirely, particularly for jobs based on creativity. It is however reasonable to expect a downturn in the demand for work spaces”.
Drawing from the results of interviews conducted in 2020 with over 12 thousand remote workers, the Boston Consulting Group predicts that work will become increasingly hybrid. One potential future for offices could be based on the Hub and Spoke model, which is gaining traction amongst California-based tech companies: companies would be structured around a central hub and many local offices. Everything connected via a single technological system.
Hub and spoke is arguably the most popular strategy during this pandemic period. Google CEO Sundar Pichai even said that his company is already planning mini satellite offices to accommodate more flexible commuting options. Increasing the number of offices may be one of the possible realities of hybrid-flexible working, whereby employees can work both remotely and in a directly connected office.
Even Amazon is addressing the needs of its workers, announcing a $1.4 billion investment to expand its satellite offices in six US cities. The company also hired 3,500 new employees to be ‘deployed’ in hubs across the country.
Companies will, of course, face the challenge of making their satellite offices attractive, providing excellent opportunities in terms of services and lifestyle compared to big city locations. And above all, they will have to invest in technologies to render this new format effective.
“Hub and Spoke is certainly one of the many possibilities against a backdrop of extensive opportunities related to new job requirements. Another advantage of remote working is precisely its ability to be applied in different ways depending on the company organisation. But on the other hand, we constantly ask ourselves: can I truly feel part of a large company without ever having met my colleagues in person?” questions Ratti.
Digital has become a crucial resource for interaction and support. Emerging communications and virtual collaboration technologies promise to unite an increasingly dispersed workforce through avatars, holographic meetings and virtual worlds. Working together as if they were in the same place and being present even if not physically together.
For Ratti, however, it must be borne in mind that “technology should not be the goal we aspire to in order to call ourselves innovators, but rather a means by which we can continue to exercise our creativity. This reminds me of a scene in ‘I, Robot’, a film based on Isaac Asimov’s book bearing the same name, in which Dr Alfred Lanning, presenting himself as a hologram, says ‘I’m sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right questions'”.
The rapper Snoop Dogg summoned Tupac Shakur, deceased in 1996, to the stage as a hologram at Coachella in 2012. Tupac’s hologram sang two songs and then vanished into thin air. Since then, the entertainment industry has been using them increasingly: from animal-free circuses to fully intangible shows. Nevertheless, healthcare, specifically surgery, and logistics are also relying heavily on this line of development to improve their processes.
Holographics has been hotly debated for a few years now, touted as the next step in remote business collaboration and training. Could holographic presence truly take video calls and live webinars to new heights?
Some startups are already experimenting with holographic projection to make remote meetings and trainings more immersive and engaging. German startup HoloMeeting is investing in remote collaboration, enabling companies to hold meetings in a holographic workspace using avatars. ARHT Media has launched HoloPod, which can ‘materialise’ various speakers located in different parts of the world on a single stage, virtual of course. The company Spatial has commenced holographic meetings on Oculus Quest. Apple uses ARKit and Google showcases holograms in ARCore. In this scenario, Microsoft has recently launched Mesh, a new hybrid-reality platform based on Azure that lets people in different physical locations join collaborative and shared holographic experiences on multiple types of devices. Anyone can take part in meetings ‘in person’ regardless of their location, thus improving collaboration and interaction with others. During these shared virtual experiences, users will initially be able to use avatars and later their own hologram.
3D virtual worlds
German automaker Audi noticed a high rate of inattentiveness of its employees in social interaction during remote meetings. Audi Akademie plugged the breach by building a 3D virtual world that doubles as a tool for training, consulting, collaboration and communication.
3D worlds are a faithful reproduction of working spaces in which participants interact through avatars in virtual space just as they would in a real-world situation. According to Sabine Maassen, Audi board member for human resources, “Audi Spaces is suitable for many applications, as it can be used for diverse groups independently of the topic. Participants describe it as more relaxed and less tiring than video conferences because they can make arrangements to meet colleagues in a space and interact together. In this way, Audi spaces helps reinforcing the feeling of community – and that includes cooperation in an international context, given that the tool is available for all employees worldwide”.
Some other large companies have also opted to use technology to tackle the work challenges of the coming years. Nestle Purina successfully trains its sales team on business processes safely and cost effectively. The team can arrange the goods on the shelves in the best possible way, manage the layout in a virtual space and even act in response to the sales data. Merchandising can be rendered and sales data transformed into 3D by wearing Oculus Quest visors during shop visits.
Mattel brings together designers, engineers and marketing professionals from all over the world in a virtual project room to design its flagship products, while the Hilton hotel chain has relied on virtual reality staff training to create empathy and improve hospitality. Ford Motor Company is designing the cars of the future in a cost-effective and safe virtual space.
“The race is certainly on, and it would not be so far-fetched to think that in the next decade or two these technologies will be as widespread in every company as Slack, Zoom or Microsoft Teams are now”, concludes Ratti, “though we will probably work more locally. Technology will continue assuming an ever greater role in the future of work, not only in production processes but also in personal and social partnerships. When all is said and done, the working world is made up of people who need to connect socially, share and interact. Technology can improve this sensation of really being connected and belonging to a community, even if only virtually, with everyone in his or her own space. But I am convinced that it will never fully replace the physical dynamics of a real office”.