By: Joslyn Balzarini
In 2015, futurist Yvette Montero Salvatico introduced the idea of the “People Cloud.” She pointed to emerging patterns that suggest open-source talent sharing becoming so common that there will be, in effect, a “People Cloud” in which work is shared, collaboration across the globe is instantaneous and “cloud” employees work for multiple enterprises simultaneously. In the early 2000s when “progressive” in the workplace looked like beanbag chairs, foosball tables and a generous snack cupboard, it was hard to believe this virtual reality could ever exist. Yet here I am, at my “desk,” having just completed a workplace design (the irony is not lost on me) for a local tech giant’s offices in China. Our team, spread across four nations on two continents, delivered the design without a single in-person interaction. Through my window the Seattle streets look the same – but the future is here.
For many of us, the initial positivity about our enforced work-from-home (WFH) conditions, when we were all enjoying peeking into each other’s homes, homemade smoothies and dog-walking during our coffee break, has settled into a less rosy reality. Recent articles about WFH circumstances discuss a lack of engagement, discomfort (and even injury) from poor ergonomics, longer work days unconstrained by clear boundaries or transition periods, and the constant battle to resist the snack cupboard. There is mounting evidence that our mental health is suffering.
The sweet spot undoubtedly lies somewhere between the virtual people cloud and brick and mortar office space. In examining the highs and lows of our remote collaboration, our learnings point to some important considerations for the future of a globally connected, culturally diverse workforce.
It strikes me that each advantage of our remote work environment has an equal and opposite disadvantage.
Productivity vs Distraction
For many, productivity increases in a calm home environment with no distractions and just yourself and the task at hand to focus on. But add in two children to home school, the new COVID puppy, the neighbor’s noisy remodel and every available surface space occupied by a family member or housemate on a Zoom call and the ability to be productive vanishes.
IM vs TMI
Instant messaging apps definitely encourage communication and it’s great to get a quick, immediate answer to an urgent issue. It’s also a great way to recreate the neighborliness of a quick aside or exchange of a friendly word. The downside is that it becomes too easy to ping someone for information sort of 24-hour on demand library style, rather than take a few minutes to look up the information for yourself. While several of the team maybe enjoying a moment of connection swapping recipes for butternut squash, others are desperately struggling to deliver on a deadline and feeling a) like they’re the only ones working and b) left out.
Permanence vs. Transience
There is comfort in settling into a familiar environment each day, knowing where everything is and what to expect. Yet after a certain point the same four walls become dull and uninspiring. There’s something uplifting about seeing a team’s latest sketches pinned up, the appearance of the latest fabric swatch or a new line in office furniture to try out. Even your colleague’s fabulous shoes or the treats someone leaves in the kitchen add an element of surprise to each day.
With everyone working on their own time to their own schedule the cracks in our virtual walls are beginning to show. As social creatures we rely heavily on celebrating successes and commiserating failures together. Loneliness is a challenge that no amount of texting can overcome, and for team members living on their own this is particularly difficult at times. Work is often characterized by bursts of activity with everyone online and collaborating together punctuated, because of the time differences and people’s flexible schedules, with periods of silence when one member anxiously awaits a response from a teammate who is offline.
At the end of the day we need to be loved, we need to feel purpose, we need to be nurtured. That will never change. We need to make space for it.
Flexibility vs Predictability
Early birds and night owls are real. The ability to work a flexible schedule that coincides with the times of day we are most productive / creative / focused / inspired has definite advantages. I’ve certainly skipped fewer dinners since working from home and fitting in exercise is much easier. The counterpoint, however, is that my schedule doesn’t necessarily line up with my colleagues. You won’t get an enthusiastic response if you ask your late night colleague for a 7am meeting. Throw in an 18-hour time difference and it really gets complicated. While there are great personal benefits to flexibility, it imposes challenges and frustrations when working in a team environment.
Tangible versus Intangible
On reflection, our “people cloud” collaboration is characterized by tangible and intangible factors. The tangible factors – flexibility, communication tools, production tools, access to data and information – are easily accessible from our home offices. However, the intangible factors – the desire for connection, for social interaction, the energy of a free-flowing idea brainstorm – are aspects of our life that can only occur in shared physical space.
We’ve proven that humans can survive inside their own homes, but we’re all losing our minds because of the lack of human interaction. Despite the access to a world of information our world has shrunk. We’re limited to virtual interactions with our immediate team and the information we’re receiving is being controlled by an extraordinarily small group of people.
For most companies now the greatest challenge is not how to get the work done, but how to keep people engaged. Culture unravels over time. When the big tech companies first went virtual they didn’t miss a beat. Teams that had been working together in physical space seamlessly transferred to virtual interactions. The bonds that had been formed in the physical world were strong enough to hold together the virtual, but over time those bonds begin to decay. As new members join and teams reform it becomes increasingly difficult to build those relationships.
Virtual versus Physical
It is instructional that the tangible aspects of work can occur seamlessly in the cloud, but the intangible factors falter outside of a common physical space. As we continue to think about the future of work, these insights will be informing all our work going forward:
- What is the essential role of physical space in a virtual world?
- Which underlying emotional factors can a physical environment positively impact?
- In our case we already had a shared culture and established relationships that had been nurtured in a shared physical space before we found ourselves working virtually across borders. Can this same level of culture and purpose be created in a purely virtual environment?
- What kinds of physical spaces – in our homes, offices and communities – would help nurture a sense of belonging and purpose?