At the Workplace of the Future, You Must Be a Painter

Your main task: Create intimacy and presence from a distance.

Posted Jul 19, 2020

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

Twitter, Facebook, and even good old Siemens have done it: allowing large parts of their workforce to work from home. Whether remote work is the new normal or not, it certainly feels somewhat antiquated these days to let the workplace—and your talent strategy—be limited by physical location. Companies allowing their employees to work from home will not only save money but also widen their talent pool. The future of work may well be what the software platform GitHub pioneered years ago: the office as deliberate social space for the occasional, important in-person gathering ("onsite is the new offsite"), and the home office for work.

With the shift to remote work, digital social technology is experiencing a second spring. The majority of online workplace collaboration and communication tools, however, are productivity-driven and task-oriented, designed for efficiency, convenience, and ease-of-use. Truly social they are not. As we have all turned into “Zoombies,” we have become painfully aware of those dimensions of in-person human communication that are lacking from virtual interactions.

Wanted: Coincidensity

Serendipity and spontaneity, in particular, are two qualities that are hard to emulate online. They have been the main reason for the stubborn appeal of conferences and other IRL events, as well as the often-cited justification for corporate campuses.

With an eye on the watercooler effect, architecture firms have often heralded “designing for serendipity” as their most crucial task in creating site plans and workflows for corporate workers. Steve Jobs, during his tenure as Pixar CEO, famously insisted that employees virtually bump into each other on their way to the bathroom, and online retailer Zappos even introduced “collisionable hours” as key metrics of workplace engagement—all in the name of innovation. Apple’s new headquarters took inspiration from that as well, and Apple software engineer Matt Biddulph coined the term “coincidensity” to describe the need for diversity and social density to enable serendipity.

This kind of coincidensity is often absent from online interactions. As Josh Constine writes in Techcrunch: “Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas.”

The next big design challenge: Make distance beautiful

A slate of new digital services is now emerging that aim to design for a more nuanced understanding of human behavior. The next big design challenge, they realize, will not be to shrink distance, but to make it more beautiful.

This is also, curiously, why VR (Virtual Reality) has not benefited from the pandemic. As the tech analyst Benedict Evans points out in his essay on the “VR Winter,” COVID-19 should have been VR’s moment, but instead of escaping to virtual worlds, people flocked to Zoom and other video conferencing platforms.

A two-dimensional form of communication causes less cognitive labor, it appears, than an immersive 3D-experience that is more seductive and intuitive on the one hand, but also uncanny on the other, since it puts a heavier burden on the user to trust the technology than videoconferencing does.

On Zoom and similar platforms, we’re still very much in control; we can decide when we want to lock eyes (if we ever do; usually we can’t directly look at the other person on the screen and into the camera at the same time, and only more advanced users have figured out how to create at least the illusion of eye contact); when we want to (discretely) multitask; or simply log off.

Why would we want immersion if digital tech can give us some welcome distance?

The impromptu office

While VR has gone missing and some people claim the end of the experience economy as we knew it, the lockdown has spawned an abundance of ingenuity when it comes to deepening and widening the experience of our humanity online: from eccentric ways of using Zoom—e.g. so-called “Bodyssey” parties that made it a point to feature our full bodies and the life we should usually omit from our Zoom windows (e.g. our bathtub, our drawer, etc.)—to new social apps that aim to engender real-world-like coincidensity, including the much-buzzed about Clubhouse, an exclusive audio-based social network allowing users to spontaneously jump into group voice chat rooms, or High Fidelity, a spatial audio solution that lets you overhear and join conversations based on virtual proximity, with voices getting louder as you get closer to them.

Other examples are Loom which lets you record and send an on-the-fly video clip to co-workers, or Screen, a collaborative screenshare on which users can code, design, write, and annotate by way of (co)-improvisation.

All of these apps enable what Josh Constine labels the “impromptu office.” They intend to enhance spontaneity, help workers navigate an increased amount of unstructured time as a result of the lockdown, and will likely carry over as a core attribute of the future workplace.

Building liminal muscle

Going forward, hybrid will be our workplace reality, and impromptu, multiverse collaboration the mode of engagement for both remote and on-site workers. We will have to learn to commute seamlessly between video, audio, and face-to-face communications, between virtual and real world(s). Co-working will boom as a place where remote workers meet to socialize and learn. Work may even transcend company boundaries and take place in inter-organizational ad-hoc networks.

Moreover, we will have to embrace that this new work-life imbalance will be much more fluid than what we’re used to, not just in terms of how we design and encounter tasks and communication, but also in the sense of unprecedented ambiguity. The simplification of a complex reality, the main impetus behind our desire to create plans and divvy up work into non-ambiguous, measurable micro-tasks, will no longer suffice. We will have to handle ever-shifting realities, form and cultivate ad-hoc networks, assume different personas and identities, give up control, travel between different cultures and tribes, and be comfortable with spending most of our time in the in-between, the liminal space.

This will require “liminal muscle”—a savvy mix of imagination and agility. And it will change the job profile for us as managers and leaders. Instead of detailed planning, we must now work with a blank canvas and constantly create something from nothing. We must learn to go with the flow and find the big picture in it. We must create and provide orientation in alternate worlds. We must co-improvise. Instead of “command and control,” we need to master “curate and convene,” and foster presence and intimacy from a distance.

Like a painter.