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The Future of Work is a Mess ... and Getting Messier

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Image: sondem - Alamy Stock Photo
If you have been following the evolving future-of-work debate over the last year or so, nobody would blame you for being confused about whether we’re all going back to the office or not. One article might proudly proclaim that the office is dead (like this one from Inc.), while another points to the office being crucial for team cohesion (like this Forbes one), and others spell doom for hybrid work (as this recent The Atlantic article did). This back-and-forth over which is the best working style points to something larger — that the future of work is one bloody mess right now. And many workplace leaders are left with the question: What will work look like in 2023 and beyond?
As executive leadership tries to answer that question, they’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of each working style and see what will be the best fit for their workplace culture and employees. This is a major part of what’s making the future of work so complicated and messy.
Weighing Working Style Pros & Cons
First, large-scale hybrid work has arrived – but hardly with a bang. From awkward conference room meetings with in-person and remote participants to people heading into the office just to sit at their desks and take video calls, the current hybrid work experience (or, more precisely, how it has been largely rolled out) leaves a lot to be desired. Many companies have also underestimated the amount of work that would be needed to convince employees to head back into the office, and cheap gimmicks like free beer, snacks, and ping pong are simply not cutting it in comparison to the benefits many employees have received from remote work.
To that end, remote work isn’t simply going to go away, but it’s also not the solution to long-standing issues like employee burnout. Despite all the productivity benefits and work-life balance improvements of remote work, many employees are still feeling isolated, anxious, and overworked. One statistic: insurance company Breeze conducted a study of 1,000 American employees and found that 47% are dealing with "remote work anxiety" or "remote work FOMO" by continuing to work from home while their colleagues return to the office. On the flip side of this point, many neurodiverse individuals and queer people have thrived working from home, and forcing them back into an office setting without proper support will most likely backfire.
Then, there is the classic in-person office environment – often configured as the now-reviled open office. The first open-plan office building was the SC Johnson Wax in 1936, at a time when “the idea of work was changing and office layouts were designed to maximize productivity,” as Fast Company shared in this article on the history of the open office. Then in 1966, the open office gained more steam when Herman Miller introduced the Action Office system, a set of components that could be configured and re-configured to meet a workplace's needs, as the company shared here.
At the time, President of Herman Miller Research Robert Propst, shared his frustration with the then-current workplace situation, saying:
“Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
Sound familiar to anyone?
Understanding Shortcomings of Each Working Style
Flash-forward several decades and the traditional open office morphed from something designed to break down walls and facilitate in-person collaboration to creating new walls instead. Pre-pandemic, Harvard Business Review found that there was a 70% decrease in face-to-face interactions when a company switched to an open office, as many workers used digital tools to communicate and collaborate instead of meeting in person.
Some work was already underway to bring employees closer together before the pandemic, with many workplaces investing in huddle rooms and focusing more on activity-based working. The post-pandemic hybrid work-enabled open office should (in theory) create more areas for employees to work collaboratively. Isolated workstations (pods and booths) could be great for focus work, video-enabled open work areas could make ad-hoc in-person hybrid collaboration more meaningful, and the good ole conference room could be a space for ideation and deep team collaboration work.
On top of that, remote work still has plenty of issues that need to be ironed out, including uneven IT support, uneven access to tech tools across working styles, and user security concerns. In a survey looking at the first quarter of 2022, research firm Enterprise Strategy Group found that 44% of 200 US-based IT decision-makers are challenged with supporting their remote workers, and 37% are faced with technology consistency challenges associated with employees working in remote and on-site locations, as Computer World reported. On top of that, security concerns remain a top priority. In a study of 600 system and IT administrators, Remotely found nearly 33% of them cited “keeping users secure, daily” as being the biggest challenge facing a remote IT team.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying, the future of work is very complicated, and whatever working style your organization ultimately chooses will come with a series of obstacles to overcome. As we often hear about selecting a technology service, there are no right or wrong answers, just what works best for your workplace. But not only do workplaces have these challenges to sort out, but we are likely heading into more turbulent times. Things might be a mess now, but by many estimates, it’s only going to get messier.