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A 'phygital' post-COVID-19 world of work: Time zone is the only physical constraint

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Coronavirus travel bans and quarantines expose one of the biggest constraints of today's work – a physical location. Even for knowledge work, our economies and workflows are very dependent on moving people around. Despite the emphasis on digital transformation, much of the world of work is still very physical.

Being together is important...

People are wired to be with other people: our colleagues, our friends. And our facilities reflect that idea. Specifically, at work, proximity promotes trust, and trust creates the social capital that's needed for collaboration. That capital must be created and periodically rekindled, and this is particularly true for new employees who need to find their place in the enterprise network. It is also true of younger employees because the workplace is a big part of their social network.

Management by walking around is how we were trained as leaders. Most boomers and Gen Xers were brought up with this routine, and with in-person staff meetings. They worked.

Innovation requires connections. Serendipitous encounters with colleagues are at the root of innovation. The same can be said of cities for which vibrancy has traditionally been the result of harnessing of collective intelligence and collaboration (for more, read here).

...but what part of 'together' is a legacy of the Industrial Revolution?

Daily knowledge work doesn't necessarily require physical proximity with everyone. People want to sit next to people – but that can happen in a local office closer to home, rather than a headquarters to which everyone must commute every day.

People want to collaborate, but much can happen with increasingly advanced digital tools – Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Mural, and many others have enormously improved in the past few years, enabling not only great video chatting, but also intuitive virtual whiteboards, sticky-note walls, and so on. And there's much more – remote collaboration has become a real industry. And Google Trends, often a useful gauge of our society's collective intelligence, shows this trend for 'remote work':

Trend for remote work

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In other words, the 'functional' value of proximity is much lower than it used to be when the only way to get work done was to sit next to someone else.

There's pent-up demand for this (more here). Apart from the occasional tragedy of pandemics, people beyond a certain age generally don't love to relocate for work, as their circle of friends and families matures. Even in the US, where relocation has been for decades one of the drivers of the economy's vibrancy, people seem to move less and less (more here). The result is a mismatch of demand and supply of labor, which reduces growth and creates discontent.

My address is a time zone: a phygital workplace

Herein lies a major opportunity to build a stronger professional and personal world – a hybrid of physical and digital ways of being together. There are at least three important implications of this.

The impact on travel can be significant. I wager that in the future, we will travel more to be with people emotionally (also professionally – building trust) or to create experiences than to work on tasks with people.

The impact on the talent pool, employee engagement, and retention can also be big. We can gainfully employ people who are remote from many of their team members, as long as they can connect in person with others in their vicinity – ideally with others in the same firm, and at least with other workers (despite all its recent turbulence, this was part of WeWork's vision, as well as that of many other co-working spaces). This can also improve the prospects of people in 'economic backwaters' by giving them more opportunities, which promotes fairness and helps stability and collaboration in our society. We can give more flexibility to people who need to spend some time tending to their families, which could be transformative for women around the world, not to mention seniors and people with disabilities.

The impact on life satisfaction can be strong. Families and friends can stay close to each other. When all is said and done, strong emotional bonds have been proven to exert a powerful positive influence on happiness and even longevity (more on this here).

The impact on innovation can be world-changing. For millennia, innovation has been strong in cities, where people could come together and collaborate on a foundation of trust enabled by their in-person connection. Imagine if we could live in a world where the same level of trust and collaboration that you get in Silicon Valley, for instance, could be replicated at a global scale – with hundreds of millions of people, including the young, and the artists, and all of those who can't afford to live in San Francisco, New York, London, or Hong Kong anymore? What would that meta-city deliver?

There are many good reasons for encouraging people to move closer to their colleagues and work partners. But some of these reasons are more for the sake of historical legacy than a current need.

We must use these sad and disorienting times to get rid of this so that we can create a more resilient and arguably more enjoyable future of work. A hybrid of physical and digital – a 'phygital' world, where the only real constraint is the time zone – literally, people's sleep time (which science says should not be touched).

What to do next

Use these times to initiate the change management, in particular, to familiarize staff with collaboration tools. For instance, as part of the Coronavirus response, our executive management team created an 'advanced collaboration' channel in our enterprise's Teams environment, which gave everyone access to the latest and greatest.

At the same time, evolve your ways of working. A recent blog from International Data Corporation (IDC) shows the analysis that most companies will need to focus on this because they're not there yet.

First, managing distributed resources requires leaders to intentionally embrace new routines. Think about:

  1. Building on methods like Agile's Scrum for instance, and their daily and weekly rituals (for instance, with virtual stand-ups), or nudging people to embrace Working Out Loud principles
  2. Emphasizing the use of (well-done) video in remote interaction, and optimizing the quality of audio available to all
  3. Deliberately making time for remote check-ins
  4. Reconfiguring office spaces so that people who meet in person don't marginalize individual remote participants
  5. Clarifying that an open-door policy should be even more strongly enforced virtually – so that quiet people don't shy away from raising their concerns
  6. Paying extra attention to cultural etiquette – because the virtual signals may be weaker

Similarly, designing distributed-network organizations is also not going to come naturally for many executives, because it doesn't just mean 'work from home once a week' – it means distributing resources so that they can get together periodically in different locations. For instance, daily in the 'spoke,' and monthly in a 'hub.' Both trust and functional collaboration must be optimized at the same time (and in my experience, they can).

There may be a silver lining to these times: we are being forced to change how we collaborate, which might yield long-lasting benefits and help us better harness our collective intelligence. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

The blog was first published in LinkedIn.

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