What does 'office optional' mean for the future of work?

May 21, 2020 James Hayward

A few years ago, Professor Robert Kelly became an internet sensation after his family burst onto the screen while he was interviewed live on the BBC. Their timing and performance were so impeccable that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was staged.

His personal and work life had suddenly, and very publicly, become intertwined. Fast forward to now and many of us will no doubt have our own Professor Kelly moments to share. Children, pets, delivery drivers, you name it, are all guests in our workplace conference calls as the lines between our work and home life evaporate. 

It’s a shift that’ll have deep and long-lasting effects. Not just on the way we work, but also on the way businesses operate, and even how the global economy functions.

To learn more we invited several experts help us figure out what comes next and if we and the businesses we work for are ready to thrive virtually? 

Working out new rituals and training unfamiliar muscles

Many of the structures and rituals that shape our lives are eroding as we work virtually. We’re no longer confined to stuffy suits, and can instead bring our true selves to work—even if that may just be through a screen.

Yet for all the freedoms the shift to remote work has delivered, it’s not a simple transition. “As the rituals that shape our lives disappear, we can build new, better ones,” says Golbie Kamarei, HR Advisor and former Chief People Officer at Culture Amp. “But it takes time, and it all feels very strange at first as we learn and unlearn habits which are deeply ingrained.” 

It’s a challenge for businesses as much as individuals. Take culture, for instance. Many businesses are struggling to bring the same intimacy and energy of an office to a virtual workspace. “The 2D screen feels flat, and it’s hard to build deep connections with our colleagues,” she says. “So businesses must figure out how to recreate that culture and experience delivered in an office environment in the virtual world.” 

“As the rituals that shape our lives disappear, we can build new, better ones.” 

Those companies that do it right have a wonderful opportunity to build something special, says Christian Lanng, CEO & Co-founder at Tradeshift. “Virtual communities are powerful—just look at the gaming industry,” he says. “It’s possible to build the same communities in the workplace, we just need to train those muscles we’re not used to using.”

Establishing trust in digital platforms and their participants

It’s impossible to deliver culture digitally and build virtual communities without trust—both in the systems creating them, and the participants. And for Syed Rizvi, Head of Cognitive Business Operations North America at Tata Consultancy Services, this sits at the heart of the shift to digital.

“Every disruption brings fringe technologies to the forefront,” he says. “And platforms are the technology that will connect the digital economy. But, the one thing that we’re missing is the tools to authenticate and validate the participants and build trust in these platforms.”

A lack of trust stops us using these tools to their full potential. But that potential is unlocked when trust is a product or service is solidified. Just look at how gamers trust the platforms they use to regulate the competition and remove any bad actors. That trust has turned what was once considered a niche, ‘nerdy’ activity, into a multi-billion dollar behemoth.

Transitioning to the service-led economy

The shift to digital platforms will bring with it some major changes to how businesses and the economy function, says Lanng. “The shipping container shaped the global economy for the last 70 years. Platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Tradeshift are the containers for services that shape the digital economy in the next 70 years.”

In a digital world, the way businesses operate is no longer confined by geographical boundaries. There is no need for there to be long, complex, global supply chains built with cost in mind. Instead, businesses can build around demand. For example, by establishing dark factories in centres of demand operated by a distributed global workforce. 

“The shipping container shaped the global economy for the last 70 years. Platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Tradeshift are the containers for services that shape the digital economy in the next 70 years.”

“We’re already working with several companies making this vision a reality,” says Lanng. “And what this does is democratize business by creating a truly global ecosystem where everyone, no matter where they are located, can take part.”

Building a better global community

So how do we get to where we need to be? And how do we transition into what’s next as painless as possible? We use and become familiar with the tools and platforms that’ll power the digital economy, says Matthew Bounds, Vice President, IBM Procurement Services Delivery.

“The best way to learn to trust new tools is by using them and making them part of our DNA,” he says. “And as we all collectively experience this massive shift in our lives and learn to adapt and use those new muscles needed to operate virtually, we’re also learning to become more empathetic and supportive of each other.

For Bounds, this will, whatever the future direction of travel, leave the business community and society more broadly, in a much better position to tackle the challenges that’ll come tomorrow.

Want to learn more about how the shift to office optional will impact you? Watch the debate in full here.

About the Author

James Hayward

James is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Tradeshift, focused on crafting compelling stories that provide supply chain professionals with unique insights and actionable advice on how to take their organization to the next level. A journalist by trade, James was previously the Global Editor at Treasury Today magazine.

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