For many businesses, getting “back to normal” might mean embracing a range of different options for what we traditionally called the workplace.
The New York Times covered this topic this week, acknowledging the confusion, the plethora of tools available, and the design challenges inherent in meeting business objectives, while also accommodating workers’ desire to have flexibility around where, when, and how they work.
Technology Makes the Difference
Not all companies want to work fully remote, and many are grappling with the question of how to adapt to the post-pandemic workplace era. One thing is clear: Whether fully on-site, fully remote, or a hybrid work model, new technologies are dramatically changing the human experience of work.
For example, workplace tech innovators like Comfy (a U.S.-based subsidiary of German multinational Siemens), are explicitly adopting a change management perspective to designing and implementing new collaboration systems and workplace experiences for employees. This is because many companies suddenly find themselves neither in-office, nor at-home all the time, but instead seeking to understand and then achieve the sometimes complex balance between these two work environments.
Tech-Enabled Tenant Experiences
For companies that need to have people back on the premises, tenant experience apps are creating a way to harness digital information to enhance, and even adjust on-site conditions. By giving employees a way to virtually connect, order lunches, book meetings, and even tweak the lighting in their workspace, they create a touchless environment that harnesses the power of digital technology without sacrificing the benefits of face-to-face collaboration.
For example, HqO is an app that gives building owners and managers a way to help manage the employee experience in their buildings, with collaborative forums and data-driven insights into usage patterns.
Workplace scheduling apps like Comfy (mentioned previous) take advantage of IoT sensors common to many buildings to empower employees to adjust lighting and temperature. They also provide the ability to book meeting rooms and other workplace resources, and create an additional layer of security and privacy by letting employees see, after opting-in, notifications about on-site colleagues.
The app also supports health and safety by giving building operators the ability to see usage patterns, monitor physical capacity limits, and, if needed, to conduct fully anonymous contact tracing.
Virtual Reality for Virtual Teams
Some companies are recognizing that not everyone will be on site at all times, and are exploring the use of virtual or augmented reality to help keep their workforce connected or informed, or even do actual hands-on work.
As the Harvard Business Review points out, geographically distributed employees can feel like they’re all in the same place by using virtual reality equipment to gather. This saves on the time, cost, and environmental impact of travel for meetings.
“Some VR-equipped teams report that they now require 90% less travel,” the magazine reports. Other companies are exploring augmented reality for training or orientation, allowing off-site employees to guide on-site colleagues through processes, or giving workers additional insights into potentially hazardous areas like construction sites or infrastructure installations.
Microsoft is enhancing their Teams app to create new ways for people to be present and seen in a meeting even when they’re physically located somewhere else. Companies like Portl take it even further, with life-sized holograms that let presenters appear in 3D in various remote locations in real time — pointing to tools for presentations, conferences, and multiple other uses.
Here Come the Robots
Of course, some industries simply can’t operate without humans on site. A bartender needs to work hands-on, as does a physiotherapist. For now. Emerging combinations of virtual reality and robotics are pointing to the possibility that even workplaces that require on-site physical activities could employ off-site workers. For example, a Japanese convenience store chain is exploring the use of virtually controlled on-site robots for manual work like restocking store shelves, an approach it expects to have operational by 2022.