Image by Adnan Ahmad Ali
Welcome to Workplace 3.0…
How our workspaces have transitioned! There was a time not so long ago when most of us led dual lives – the personal and the professional. In many cases, we built our professional life to support our personal life; one that encapsulated everything but work – our family, our relationships, and our self.
The physical workspace, of course, was where our official work got done. We lived our personal life outside of that office building; to a large extent, it centered around our home. There was a fine territorial line between the two – and only the closest of our colleagues crossed over. For the majority, interaction with colleagues happened either in the meeting rooms that dotted our hallways. Occasionally, that interaction occurred during after-hour happy hours in neighborhood pubs.
The Pandemic Blurred Many Lines
One challenging year changed all of that.
In 2020, as the pandemic engulfed us from Canberra to Chicago, we were forced to move indoors. To keep the wheels of our economies moving and to maintain livelihoods, we turned to technology. And in many ways, technology rescued us. Video conferencing, while already around for over a couple of decades, got the kind of boost a start-up founder can only dream of – when they have time to dream. Buoyed by a freemium model that hooked both individuals and corporates alike, one of the beneficiaries was Zoom, which saw a whopping 326% increase in revenue.
This single most transformational piece of technology ensured that communication flowed seamlessly, even when we weren’t in the office. Between managers and team members. Between suppliers and buyers. And between clients and organizations. Zoom kept the communications line open between anyone and everyone who needed to interact. Constrained by the lack of personal connection that benefits from physical proximity, this was the next best thing. Everyone lapped it up. No doubt, this contributes to the observation that “Time spent in meetings has more than doubled globally” as presented in March 2021 in the Work Trends research by Microsoft.
Video Conferencing Destroyed Those Lines
Unconsciously, perhaps, video conferencing also enabled another dimension of communication. It didn’t blur the lines between the workplace and home. Zoom obliterated those lines.
Suddenly, we welcomed our colleagues, customers, stakeholders and others in the work ecosystem right into our homes. And depending on how much real estate you possessed, they entered your living room, study, garage or even, your bedroom! Now, your office colleagues were privy to your preferred color schemes, taste in furniture, and whether you had one or two rescue dogs for company.
Given this transition happened suddenly, and self (or business) preservation was the primary objective at the time, most of us didn’t put too much thought into the invitation (or was it an invasion?) of our personal lives. We did what we had to do at that moment. We went along with the flow. Now, although we may not be able to reverse that powerful flow, it is interesting to take a look at the long-term implications of the fusion of our professional and personal lives – and the potential impact of Workplace 3.0.
Acceptance of yet another “new normal”
Clichéd as it may be, the fact is that humanity can quickly get accustomed to new ways of working. After working in small offices in smaller buildings early in their careers, people of a certain age graduated to Workplace 2.0 in open-spaced campuses modeled after the large factories of the Industrial Age. We accepted traveling on the Tube to reach these work centers. We accepted long hours away from home to do our work.
Similarly, we’ll embrace this newest change as well. Many of us already have. After all, your colleagues have already been visitors to your home – albeit virtually. So the line between professional and personal has already been crossed. That cat people see jumping on your desk during a Zoom meeting is already out of the bag!
“Reclaiming my line”
Along the way, most Video Meeting platforms added functionality that inserted virtual backgrounds or allowed you to blur your natural background (“Let the laundry lie on the bed, Steve!”). Clunky initially, this feature has now been juiced up by artificial intelligence (AI). For some, this feature allows us to draw a curtain between professional and personal; it enables the creation of a virtual personal space even during professional meetings.
A bonus of this AI-driven virtual reality: Depending on what one is trying to convey, you can choose to be on a beach in the Bahamas in one meeting and amidst the stars the next. (Note: the rescue dogs would prefer a run on the beach.)
More transparency at work
Our makeshift workspaces, differentiated from our personal spaces even though they physically occupy the same space, silently encouraged one aspect of Workplace 2.0: We are to bring only our professional selves to work. The rest of us must stay outside the office doors – or at least outside camera range. Such an environment, quite naturally, encourages workers to live dual lives. We wear a sports jacket on the top and gym shorts on the bottom. In Workplace 2.0, irrespective of what was ailing us, we should put up a smiling face and pretend all is well at work. Now, with the camera now peeping right into our comfort zone, the trend is to be more transparent. To live and display ourselves – as we are.
Of course, this new level of transparency comes with the hope that our colleagues, bosses and customers will accept us as we are – including the small children who sneak into the room during meetings.
A greater understanding of others
The true benefit of any shift in workplace modalities, and the introduction of any technology that helps us thrive in Workplace 3.0, is becoming more humane – even as we work. By enabling people to connect and relate when social distancing has been the need of the hour, one could say Zoom and similar platforms have done their part. Video conferencing has brought us closer together, even when safety protocols forced us apart. But, there is more.
As we see a young mother breastfeed her young one, even as she reviews the quarterly numbers, we see the human element in action. As we see a not-ready-for-primetime spouse enter the room only to realize the camera is on, we open our minds and hearts to others in a way that we’ve never done before. When we create mini work zones in different parts of our house, to ensure our partner and kids can also work efficiently, we take ‘sharing’ – physical and emotional – to another level. And throughout all the challenges, we gain a greater understanding of ourselves, and each other.
Workplace 3.0: Work, Changed Forever
In essence, one must acknowledge that the way and where we work has changed forever. In Workplace 3.0, we can hope that the blurring of the lines between our personal spaces and our workspaces will continue to bring us closer – to make us more human. And that humanity will foster further collaboration and co-operation at work – that we will be more accepting of each other, which will encourage more diversity at work.
And when all this happens, it will be the single most positive outcome of an otherwise extremely painful pandemic.
I, for one, welcome the lack of lines in Workplace 3.0. And I will be watching how this plays out.