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A New Age of Workplace Design

What working in hybrid taught me about the future of work.
A New Age of Workplace Design

As remote work is forced into the norm, the global pandemic has accelerated the growth of an already inevitable, technological future. In the new world of work, existing organizations must adapt or perish.

Change is hard enough for humans. At the organizational level, it is an order of magnitude harder. Seeing which organizations adapt and how will be worth keeping an eye on in years to come.

So, what does the future of the workplace look like? How will we adapt and optimize for efficiency in this new environment?

I had much time to ponder these questions over the past year. In doing so, I saw an opportunity to leverage my current situation to obtain answers.

What working in hybrid taught me

Throughout the pandemic, I went to the office twice a week and worked remotely the rest. Acknowledging the implications of this shift, I made it a point to reflect on my experience. Eventually, this led to tracking my productivity to test my assumptions about which environment I worked more efficiently in. Through a combination of self reflection and data analysis, I arrived at a few central points that I believe organizations will need to address in order to be effective in the new world of work.

Optimize meetings: meetings for me, take up (+/-) 20% of my day on average

A quick thought experiment:

If I can get 10 things done with 80% of my day, I can get 1 thing done with 8% of my day. Thus, without meetings, I'd have time to get another 2.5 things done each day or, 25% more work!

My point, of course, is not to completely eliminate meetings. But rather, that organizations should focus on optimizing meetings as the return on compounding productivity is probably being undervalued.

In the new world of work, meetings are more difficult to facilitate. But with the right tech and good policy that doesn't always have to be true.

Incentivize focus: screen time takes up a lot more time than you think

I think of myself as being pretty good with my phone while I work. But my phone is a pavlovian wizard, casting spells in the form of push notifications, compelling me to gaze upon my messages, emails, or social media–whatever gets me my dopamine fix.

In attempt to avoid this nasty habit, I'll typically put my phone out of sight when possible. But that doesn't seem to stop the accumulation of screen time at end of each day.

On the high end, I was accumulating about 3 hours of screen time per day.

Now, some of this may be fine. I wasn't breaking up my screen time into acceptable [e.g., work related calls] vs non-acceptable [e.g., memes] usage. But the numbers are still surprisingly high.

After accounting for meeting time, its a wonder how anything gets done some days. For one day in particular, my remaining productivity hours [hours left after accounting for meeting and screen time] went into the negative!

Behavior change is hard. Without the right incentives in place, we tend to default to our system 1 behaviors. Optimizing for productivity in the future of work means incentivizing focus.

The good news is, we might already be compensating for this. One of the more surprising findings of my self study was that even though I wasted more time while remote [and therefore had less time to get my work done], I still got more work done.

But how?

We get the work done in the time we have.

In the office, we are subject to something called the Hawthorne effect: a phenomenon where we are more productive in the presence of our superiors. In other words, urges for distraction are suppressed while in the office. But not while remote.

My hypothesis:

As workers, we inevitably set productivity expectations with our organizations [a form of psychological contract]. That is to say, over time, the rate at which you normally complete your work becomes the rate at which your superiors expect you to get it done. Thus, while remote, we still abide by this expectation. However, with the Hawthorne effect removed, we no longer have to "look the part" we only need to play it.

In the end, as long as the work gets done, what does it matter how?

When the necessity to look the part is removed, it's no surprise that all sorts of new behaviors emerge, like increased technological distraction.

Although I wasted more time remote, I managed to get more work done. It seems I was putting in an increased amount of focus during productivity time, increasing my rate of output. Essentially, I was doing more with less time to maintain productivity expectations.

The most interesting part of this: it all happened unconsciously. That is, I didn't realize it was happening until I analyzed my productivity data.

The best of both worlds

Synthesizing findings from productivity analysis with anecdotal experience, I arrived at one conclusion: the future is hybrid.

That is, the benefits of being in the office and the benefits of working remotely are not mutually exclusive unless we make them so. But by allowing people to work in the environment that works best for them, we unlock the ability to maximize positive outcomes, getting the best of both worlds.

While working remote, we have freedom, solitude, and focus. In the office, we have social learning, collaboration, and free access to technological resources. Having the ability to reap all of these benefits is going to be a game changer for organizations who do this well.

Learning together

We shouldn't underestimate the power of  learning together. Office interactions like "water-cooler chat" and creative collaboration are catalysts for organizational learning. Missing out could be a limits to growth system archetype. As a result, entirely remote organizations may be unable to keep up with the learning rate of their competitors.

For new employees in particular, a reduction in social learning opportunities translates to an increase in time and money spent getting them up to speed.

Collaboration pro re nata

With entirely remote models, you miss out on social learning, but that doesn't mean the office is always best. More social interaction could also mean more distractions.

With a hybrid model, you can choose the most efficient workspace to suit your needs.

This is good news for the open office model, which was originally flawed in its lack of support for solitude. In a hybrid model, you don't need to create space for solitude. Employees who need it can simply work from home and the office can be optimized for collaboration.

While remote collaboration is certainly possible, I don't think you'll find anyone that will argue against the frictionless experience of collaboration in person.

"Meeting-less" work

Hybrid models come with the embrace of decentralization, but that doesn't imply efficiency. Embracing a hybrid model means designing systems and practices to support all employees, regardless of physical proximity.

Leaders must invest in the right tech to support their dispersed workforce. At the same time, they must model behaviors consistent with meeting efficiency [e.g., preparedness, facilitation, etc].

Meeting effectiveness has dropped since the start of the pandemic. In the new world of work, having meeting procedures that support both physical and remote employees is a good way to get the most out of your meeting time.

Focus incentives

Incentivizing focus is a challenging but worthwhile effort. Luckily, by allowing employees to work where they please, we allow focus incentives to occur naturally.

Still, distractions are everywhere. Without the Hawthorne effect keeping us on task, we easily fall victim to our own devices. Organizations who acknowledge this facet of human behavior will devise focus incentives to keep people on task, regardless of physical location.

Some ideas:

Reward the right behaviors. We reward people for exemplary productivity, but we forget that productivity isn't exactly a behavior. It's a rate of output.

To be highly productive one needs to be highly focused [the actual behavior]. Be sure to reward focus itself and not just productivity. The closer the reward is tied to the behavior, the deeper the conditioning.

If you want to get creative, host internal competitions for things like having the lowest average screen time for the month. Reward winners with simple things like gift cards or event tickets.

Remove deep focus blockers. By removing meetings from calendars for large chunks of the day, you incentivize deep focused work and prevent it from being disrupted.

Obviously, this isn't feasible for everyone. But for those lower on the totem pole [who spend much more time doing the work than doing the planning], having large chunks of time without disruption is the best way to maintain a deep focused state.

Build focus spaces. A focus space is a safe-haven designed for comfort and efficiency. Ideally, policy around using the space should reflect that objects of distraction not enter. That is, any unnecessary technology [i.e., your smartphone] should be sacrificed upon entry. The cost for entering the space is distraction itself.

On asynchronous work [and the plausibility of the 4 day work week]

A final aspect of the hybrid model we should consider is asynchronous work. That is, work that doesn't happen at the same time for everyone.

Right now, the only thing preventing most people from doing this is structure: the normal working hours which we feel either obligated to work within [or have been explicitly told to].

While not all jobs can accommodate asynchronous work, those that can, should in order to optimize for efficiency. Unless the work demands it, there is no reason why someone can't get it done at any time they wish, so long as they continuously meet obligations and expectations.

The benefit of asynchronous work is that it removes time barriers and maximizes autonomy [a critical component of the job characteristics model]. For example, if I work 9-5 every day, and I need to get a particular project done by Friday, I might say to myself that I need to work on this for one hour each day to get it done by Friday. By eliminating these time barriers, we allow the work to get done when it is truly best for us. This allows us to optimize for focus and deep work because we no longer work around anyone's schedule but our own.

This creates a positive feedback loop: the more freedom we have to do our work, the more freedom we feel in our lives in general, and the less likely it is that we fall victim to burnout.

Once people realize that they can be done with their work on Thursday and only stick around to check emails on a Friday, or leave for a long weekend getaway a day earlier, the feedback loop continues thanks to reinforcement from improved work-life balance. Ultimately, the same amount of output is achieved in significantly less time.

Final thoughts on a hybrid future

In the new world of work, refusing to offer remote means restricting your talent pool. And since many companies now allow remote work indefinitely, talent with a preference for working from home will happily stick with them. By closing your doors to remote work, you are closing your doors talent.

Seeing the future in this light is where I/O Psychologists shine. But not all organizations have the luxury of staffing psychologists to think for them. Yet, with or without them, the life-cycle of organizations mimics Darwinism; survival of the fittest may be more universal than we think.

With the new world of work comes an enlightening moment: the dawn of a new age of workplace design. Getting here however, means sacrifices will be made. There isn't room for everyone in the new world of work. Today's organizations are at the beginning of a trial of fate.

For them, it is adapt or perish.

As always, thanks for reading.
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