The future of work: Technology and workspaces

Probably the most discussed topic in the last year and a half has been how to re-organise work because of the sudden and rapid shift of business operations. This article series looks at two areas of importance: Human capabilities and Technology and workspaces.

For the past year or so, many of us experienced working out of our usual offices for an extended period; we undertook what was commonly framed as a shift from working in the office to working from home. Although this change in location created logistical challenges, the fact that we were working in a different place was not the most transformational shift. The truly important thing is not that we worked from our homes, but that we adopted a digital way of working. We swapped pencil and paper, drawing boards and blueprints, and in-person meetings and get-togethers for equivalent digital tools, moving the work from the physical world to the digital one. In addition, in doing so, we discovered that when work lives in a digital space, when workers are working digitally rather than working physically, where the worker is located matters much less, than how the work is done.

The caveat here is the need for us to change how we think of the workspace. Workspaces cannot be deemed just physical locations, but rather virtual places where teams gather when working digitally to solve problems in pursuit of organisational goals. The digitisation of work, then, gives us the opportunity to ‘unbundle’ the workplace and put it back together in ways that are more effective. We can break apart various places that make up the physical workspace, understand their purpose and then find an alternative way to realise each one.

Although most physical workspaces include digital technology, they fall short of enabling workers to work digitally. Most people and organisations have used technology to ‘lift and shift’ traditional workflows, using new tools but doing things in the same old way. Not only does this undermine the power of technology, but it also de-values its potential in elevating human capabilities. A ‘life and shift’ approach enables firms to streamline existing workflows, but it prevents them from discovering new workflows that optimise creativity, innovation or even job quality.

Our workforces are also no longer monolithic, all employees of a single firm. Firms have responded to an increasingly complex workplace by packaging up internal tasks and passing them to partners and suppliers. Eighty-seven percent of organisations now consider external workers as part of their workforce. They are building workforce ecosystems that extend workforce planning, talent acquisition, performance management, and compensation policies to these external contributors. Again, physically collocating all of these contributors is impractical, if not impossible.

Digital technology helps us solve these problems. Working digitally, workers can participate in more than one team at a time, with digital tools acting as a bridge between teams when needed. Each team has its own digital work environment, its own network of digitally mediated relationships supported by a particular set of tools. However, digitally switching from one team to another is easier and cheaper than going from one physical workplace to another, whether next door or halfway around the world.

Workers can also use digital technology to attend more meetings in the same amount of time because they aren’t moving from room to room, building to building, or even country to country in between. A potential result is an increase in productivity, though it also raises the risk of burnout due to the strain of enduring back-to-back-to-back meetings and the elimination of in-person social interaction.

Of course, some things are more easily accomplished in a physical workplace than solely through digital tools. Many have pointed out, for instance, that working remotely reduces the incidence of serendipitous encounters and makes forming social connections more difficult. Developing the sense of psychological safety within a team likely requires in-person interaction to develop and maintain personal relationships and team camaraderie. Trade-offs, therefore, are inevitable. This is why the best solution often combines the digital and the physical, taking advantage of the benefits of each, and deliberately choosing which trade-offs to make.


Ultimately, as we have learned, we need to consider all opportunities to find new and better ways of working. This means finding new approaches that hinge on human capabilities and organising teams. New teams can be formed to directly address the problems confronting companies today, spanning from organisational siloes and locations to providing teams with diverse expertise and experiences.

Leadership must believe in the value of capabilities across their organisations and frame the impact that capabilities and technology combined, can have on the business.

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