The Evolution of the Way We Work

Any discussion of the way we work must start with consideration of the evolution of the workplace in the past fifty years as the world has moved from the industrial age to the information age. The huge shift to remote work in 2020 has been surprisingly successful during the pandemic. While it will not continue at the same levels, the benefits will ensure that it will continue at a higher level than before the pandemic. Among the benefits are:

  • Enhancing work that requires concentration
  • Significant time saved from not commuting
  • Employee flexibility to manage work-life activities
  • Allowing employees to have greater autonomy in performing their work

While some employees might shift to complete remote work, it is likely that a great many more will end up with a split schedule, working from home several days a week and in the office the remaining days. Here are the top 3 most recent trends from the evolution of the workplace:



Trend #1: Work Can Be Done Anywhere

Over the past two decades, advances in technology have enabled many people to perform their jobs remotely. According to Gallup, the number of employees in the US working remotely for part of their workweek increased from 39% in 2012 to 43% in 2016. Gallup notes that although some employees work exclusively at home, a growing number divide working time between the home and office.



The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a massive exercise in remote working that will have long-term effects, even after the pandemic ends. White-collar workers gained familiarity with tools for video conferencing, screen sharing and cloud-based productivity tools. Managers learned that workers can be productive even when out-of-sight.

When the pandemic is over and it is once again safe for people to work in office environments without social distancing, it is likely that the percentage of people working remotely for at least part of their workweek will have increased dramatically.



Trend #2: Work is Less Routine

As part of their mandate to understand the US economy, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a research report analyzing trends in cognitive or white-collar work and manual or blue-collar work. The research looked at routine tasks versus non-routine tasks and concluded that routine cognitive and manual tasks were in decline, being replaced by algorithms and robots. Jobs with non-routine cognitive and manual tasks were growing. The take-away idea for workplace planners is to provide workspaces that minimize distraction.



Trend #3: How Work is Done in Groups

Professor Alex Pentland at MIT has been a major researcher in the area of collective intelligence. He has studied how interactions within a team and between teams result in improved group productivity. As workplace planners seek to create environments that support collaboration and random encounters, they would benefit by better understanding the principles of group behavior.

Pentland’s research has found three primary factors that drive team performance:

  1. Energy – The number and nature of communication exchanges between members.
  2. Engagement – The distribution of energy among team members. The more that all team members participate in communication, the higher the team’s performance.
  3. Exploration – Communication that team members have outside their group. Pentland’s research shows that this is critical for innovation and generating new ideas.



Sociometric Sensors to Better Understand Human Interaction

Pentland’s research teams at the MIT Media Lab have developed a wearable device called a sociometric sensor that can track interactions between individuals. Working with volunteer subjects, the technology has been valuable in better understanding face-to-face communication. This research can help workplace planners in creating environments that foster interaction between employees.

The devices were used by researchers from Harvard in analyzing the effect on employee communication of changing an office from traditional to open-plan design.3 Ironically, the study found that changing to a more open environment shifted communication from face-to-face, generally considered the most desirable form of communication, to less desirable text and email. These findings have been controversial since they contradict recent workspace design trends.


Flexible Work Is Here to Stay

Much about the future is uncertain, but business will need to continue valuing flexibility in their workplaces in order to remain efficient and adaptable during these unprecedented times. A hybrid workplace that combines the efficiency of collaborative in-office workplaces with flexible remote work practices will likely be the new future of work.

Learn more about how these trends are accelerating agile work environments and what the workplace of the future might look like by downloading “The Hybrid Workplace of the Future” e-book.