The Future of Remote Work: A better way to work or a strange new world
By Erik Wyche and Micah Burger
The future of work will depend on complex social, economic, political, environmental, and cultural factors that interplay to create a landscape that we can only say will be different than today. While the full scope of this change may be unfathomable, one thing we feel comfortable saying is that, looking 10 to 20 years down the road, worker flexibility will increase. Collaboration tools and technologies are advancing, the divisions between our work and personal lives are eroding, and younger generations are entering the workforce with different expectations for the role work will play in their lives.
In light of Erik’s recent post about his personal experience working remotely and lessons learned from his challenges, we’ve imagined four (not too inconceivable) scenarios for what work might look like in the future and posited potential solutions for how we might prepare ourselves for these changes. The scenarios we arrived at extrapolate on current social, economic, and technological trends we see effecting where we work and the tools we use. In reality, we will probably see a combination of all these scenarios with additional unforeseen attributes. Likewise, our attempts at addressing these scenarios are not too far-fetched. Based on current trends, we could foresee these solutions being realized in the not too distant future. They have also been developed, in part, as a response to our perceived shortcomings in the way we currently work remotely.
As with many future-looking scenarios, a dystopian reality is never far from being realized. Technology and cultural practices, deployed irresponsibly and with blind ambition, can quickly lead to unforeseen consequences. As we continue our pursuit of better work environments, more productive and creative employees, and innovative technology, we should remember to not only ask “can we”, but “should we”.
The Digital Nomad
Steep housing prices and rising inequality make it increasingly difficult for young people to settle in cities. The demand for knowledge workers is high and to attract talent, companies allow employees to work from anywhere. Young people embrace the digital nomad lifestyle. The Hyperloop takes off and it is possible to travel the world in hours. People are not tethered to a single place and The Office Deluxe 2000 enables them to do this.
A modular unit that can fit into a backpack or suitcase, The Deluxe 2000 unfolds to create an instant office setting, allowing workers to literally “set up shop” anywhere (and anytime) they want. Manufactured using 3-D printing technologies and made of light-weight, high-density materials for maximum rigidity and sturdiness, The Deluxe 2000 weighs next to nothing, allowing users to take it anywhere. And take it anywhere is what people do. Digital nomads use The Deluxe 2000 not only in their private residences, but in co-working spaces, airports, train stations, shopping malls, outdoor parks, libraries, and many other types of public spaces. The efficiency of remote work increases greatly, as employees are able to bring the comforts and tools of the office anywhere. With the proliferation of these easy-to-deploy office units, the lines between public and private spaces become increasingly blurred, so much so that there are no longer inappropriate places to conduct work. As a result, beautiful public spaces once used for leisure and recreation, like Central Park, are overrun with a sea of cubes. The landscapes of society become littered with these mobile units, resulting in corporate shanty towns.
The End of the Office
Corporate headquarters, large office buildings, and 15 year leases become too expensive and risky for companies. Contract employees become increasingly common. To compete for talent, companies hire without regard to geographic location. Co-working spaces proliferate and companies pay for short-term rentals in co-working spaces in cities across the country. Their employees and contractors go to whichever is closest to where they live. The humble gas station, the obsolete fossil fuel infrastructure that scars our landscapes, is repurposed into a nationwide network of co-working spaces, meeting hubs, and maker spaces.
With no centralized offices, employees are never far from this network of distributed offices. However, the cost of repurposing the nationwide network of gas stations into fully outfitted co-working spaces quickly becomes prohibitive. Rather, employees bring their necessary equipment with them and set up shop in these shells of collaboration and innovation.
Without the security or permanence of a traditional office setting, the equipment needed to perform all daily work tasks is consolidated into a single device – the Compleō . It serves as a mobile phone, high-powered computer, high-resolution camera, large format tablet, scanner, and full entertainment device. Dubbed the Swiss Army Knife of electronics, it can fit inside a pocket or purse, but can also expand into a large format screen with projection keyboard in seconds so there is a computer at ones fingertips at all times. Additionally, it features the first use of conduction batteries, which allows the device to charge whenever it is held in someone’s hand. This advanced piece of equipment allows an individual to have the freedom to move seamlessly amongst a nation-wide network of co-working spaces and still have all the tools needed to remain productive and efficient.
However, with decentralized offices, central business districts fall into disrepair. There is a mass migration out of cities as employees move to the exurbs where access to co-working networks is ubiquitous. Cultural institutions, restaurants, and all the amenities of cities become under-utilized and slowly, but eventually fall into oblivion.
We continue our relentless pursuit of technology and embrace further human-computer integration. We embrace connectivity in all aspects of our lives. Increased AI and automation mean more time for creative, collaborative, knowledge work. The boundaries between the physical and virtual world blur even further.
Virtual Reality is quickly becoming omnipresent in today’s society, whether through computer games, first-player video games, or headsets that alter and distort one’s sense of place. But what has not been explored, until now, is a virtual workplace, where employees are instantly transported to a digital office space to perform their daily tasks. All that is needed is a small computer and a headset in order to allow full and complete integration into the digital office from the comfortable confines of one’s own home. Individual avatars navigate this programmed space as a means of promoting collaboration and connectivity with colleagues. Employees, clad in striped pajamas with their morning glass of Soylent, don’t have to move from their breakfast nook to join their colleagues in a virtual office space. Never straying from the luxuries of home, employees across the world can gather in a meeting room to discuss the newest product development features. This face-to-face collaboration, although virtual, creates the conditions for increased engagement and creativity. However, as these virtual environments become ever more realistic and people have increasing control over their virtual avatars, users sink further into their virtual environments. The workforce loses touch with reality and can no longer discern between the living world and the digital world. What results is an eerie state of being, stuck between two worlds, neither real nor imagined.
A Return to Simpler Times
People reject the erosion of their personal lives that results from unchecked technological advancement. Social isolation and loneliness become public health epidemics and social isolation becomes “the new smoking”. Public health campaigns emerge to bring people together for face-to-face interaction. AI and automation reduce the need for busy work, meaning people come to the office to meet, collaborate, and bond with colleagues.
It is said that history repeats itself, so eventually the continued evolution of remote working will lead employees to being too secluded and people will want to return to a more traditional office setting. But in order to do so and still maintain an optimal work-life-balance, commutes to the office become an extension of leisure and family time afforded by the proliferation of self-driving cars. The current trend of offering unparalleled amenities is resurrected, giving people even more of a reason to be at the physical work place. There is a return to human interaction and expanded creativity, as AI eliminates people’s need to do physical labor and repetitive tasks, leading to greater idea generation that produces unyielding innovation. However, this influx of creativity and innovation gives birth to an even more competitive culture as people wrestle with ways to protect their intellectual property.