In an early May blog post, Google chief executive officer (CEO) Sundar Pichai shared the company’s vision for its workplace future—over a year after the covid-19 pandemic forced offices around the world to shutter almost overnight and employees suddenly shifted to working remotely using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and a host of other virtual collaboration tools.
“The future of work is flexibility,” he said, adding that Google was “reimagining a hybrid workplace to help us collaborate effectively across many work environments.” That includes testing multi-purpose workspaces and developing advanced video technology that “creates greater equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually,” he explained.
Google is far from alone in its efforts to keep up with an unprecedented post-pandemic office evolution. Citigroup recently announced that a majority of workers would be designated as hybrid, working at least three days per week in the office. Ford has said that 30,000 of its North American office workers would be allowed to work under a flexible hybrid model. Nearly every organization, across every industry is trying to determine how to navigate and respond to changing employee expectations and sentiments around how and where they work.
For example, EY’s 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey revealed that nine in ten employees want continued work flexibility, while more than half of employees globally would consider quitting their jobs if post-pandemic flexibility is not provided.
In addition, employee expectations for work flexibility don’t necessarily match that of their leadership. According to a recent report conducted by global market research company Ipsos and premium audio brand EPOS, 53% of decision makers think that the majority of employees will spend more time in the physical workplace over the next year, rather than remotely, whereas just 26% of employees think the same.
Employees are also demanding more and better technology to promote increasingly flexible ways of working and more sophisticated options for collaboration on and off-site. The Ipsos/EPOS study, for example, found that 89% of all end users currently experience challenges when having virtual meetings or workshops. The research found that some 63% of global end users experience issues during business conversations on a regular basis because of poor sound quality. The most common problems include background noise (32%), interferences on the line (26%), and asking for information to be repeated (23%).
The move to remote work has highlighted a need for resiliency, agility, and flexibility not just in how businesses operate but how their employees work. The current upheaval from an all-remote environment to hybrid possibilities is a similarly disruptive moment that requires technology innovation to equalize the work environment for all—those that work from home or another remote location, as well as those physically in the office.
“The onset of the covid-19 pandemic was like a time machine that suddenly propelled us tens of years into the future,” said Paul Silverglate, vice chairman and US technology sector leader at Deloitte, speaking about how networks, services, and devices rallied to effectively support the shift to working and schooling from home. “The underlying technology for these new behaviors was truly tested and, for the most part, held up under increased connectivity demands. As well as we have adapted, we have hit the limits of what our current technology can deliver.”
Investing in innovative technology is crucial for employee experience
As organizations emerge from the pandemic, more than two-thirds (68%) of CEOs plan a major investment in data and technology, while 61% plan to undertake a new transformation initiative, according to EY’s 2021 CEO Imperative survey. The question is, how can companies invest in innovative technology to boost the employee experience in a hybrid workplace? After all, it is becoming crystal-clear that the traditional conference room with a table, chairs and speakerphone will no longer cut it as people return to a new, hybrid workplace.
Firms like EY have made big investments, including a conference room that offers an immersive meeting experience with life-sized touch screens and integrated cameras and speakers. Increasingly, 360-degree cameras, microphones, and speakers are likely to be built into gathering places and the number of screens increased, transforming the conference room into a “Zoom room,” according to Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is revamping offices, including its own, for new modes of working.
Google too is creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with large screens showing the faces of people dialing in by video conference, so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.
These moves reflect the consensus from the Ipsos/EPOS study, which found that workers and leaders are continuing to see the benefits of holding meetings virtually. Some 79% of end users recognize the benefits of video for virtual meetings, an increase of 7% from 2020. Along with savings in time and cost compared with face-to-face meetings, 21% of decision makers say that video meetings help them feel closer to their team, and 17% believe it establishes trust in working relationships.
Whatever the future of the workplace looks like, it should be aligned with the company’s culture as well as its efforts to recruit and retain top talent.
Many financial companies, for example, considered in-person collaboration too important to lose so asked people to come into the office early on in the economic reopening. In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, some firms are giving up their headquarters and becoming fully-remote organizations.
The majority of companies, however, are taking a hybrid approach: Accenture’s 2021 Future of Work study of 9,000 workers around the world found that a vast majority of employees (83%) say a hybrid model would be optimal for a productive and healthy workforce.
“Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity more broadly—inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a recent report. “All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”
This content was produced by EPOS. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city
Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.
As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.
To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.
Read the full list here.
The Urbanism issue
The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras.
The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:
– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.
– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.
– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.
– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build.
The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat.
In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.
To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this.
“To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”
Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech
What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language.
Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.
Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).