It’s 10:05 AM on a Wednesday morning inside the Boston headquarters of Robin. About 60 people are gathered for a wide-ranging conversation about present and future workplace trends. Spread out on a nearby table are fresh fruit cups, yoghurt parfait, and blueberry muffins, not to mention coffee, tea, and juices. Leading the morning conversation are Robin CEO Micah Remley and Lauren Hasson, Senior Vice-President of Workplace Strategy for commercial real estate firm JLL.
Remley opens the conversation by referencing the constant change and evolving challenges that workplace leaders, many of whom are sitting right in front of him drinking coffee and nodding in agreement, have grappled with over the last few years, including employee expectations and adopting new work models such as remote work and hybrid work. JLL's Hasson adds that “we’re finally approaching a new normal in the office, with Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays having strong attendance, but we won’t ever be returning to the pre-pandemic office of 2019.”
4 Big Challenges for RTO Plans
Hasson listed a number of big challenges facing organizations and their workforces as they return to the office, including:
1. Challenges of the commute
2. Leaders who fail to embrace new ways of working
3. Stale workplace design and technology
4. Too many meetings clogging people’s calendars
Using an interactive polling app, Hasson asked the audience to rank those four challenges. The toughest challenge chosen by the audience was (perhaps unsurprisingly) the commute, with “leaders who fail to embrace new ways of working” a close second. “The commute is largely out of an organization’s control,” says Hasson, while organizational leadership has gone through an ongoing, sometimes-frustrating process of trial and error in embracing new work models. “There’s been no manual for leaders to go by to navigate the past few years,” she explained.
Remley discussed the “stale workplace design and technology” challenge: “we’ve spent tens of billions of dollars across industries to enable people to be effective working remotely. Then all of a sudden everyone comes back to the office and thinks, okay, we've opened the doors, but why isn't this working?” People come in and don’t have good experiences, so they don’t return – RTO mandate or not. Robin exists to help make the office experience a frictionless and efficient one so people can do their best work, Remley explains.
Hasson agreed with Remley on the staleness of office spaces, adding that “only 31% of companies have actually updated their office from a furniture design and tech standpoint over the past few years. People go to their workspaces and it can feel like a time capsule, not the most energizing space to return to” and not a good locus for developing strong company culture and collaboration.
Fully Remote Jobs are Decreasing. Why?
Hasson noted that job postings for fully remote jobs are now at a three year low, after peaking in January of 2022, according to LinkedIn's job posting data. While some of that remote hiring helped organizations cast a wider net in the labor market for talent and may have helped an organization's DEI efforts, remote hiring has also brought significant drawbacks, including:
1. Increased Complexity
“Many chief human resource officers (CHROs) realized that they were left with more organizational complexity because of these two employee populations, remote and on-site,” said Hasson. “It's extremely challenging to ensure that both groups have equal access to coaching employee support, mentoring, career development, learning, professional development, new opportunities, and beyond. So much of the luster of hiring fully remote workers has worn off because of all that complexity.”
2. Productivity Problems
Remote work has also started to impact organizational productivity operational efficiency, and employee performance, noted Hasson. “Business leaders are suddenly saying, maybe we're not as productive as we thought we would be in a fully remote environment.”
3. The Emerging "New Normal" of RTO
After years of experimenting with RTO approaches, “many companies across all industries are now back to three or four days in the office,” said Hasson. As this “new normal” of more onsite time with hybrid work gets established, it becomes a challenge to foster IRL connection, collaboration, and company culture with fully remote employees.
The 2024 Future Workplace (and Beyond): 10 Predictions/Key Trends
Hasson, Remley, and the audience discussed several predictions and trends about the workplace of 2024 and beyond. Here are ten of them:
1. AI Will Transform Work
Remley believes “we all need to be thinking about AI – not just how it impacts how we work as individuals, but also how AI impacts the workplace. So much of the administrative and back office work that gets done remotely right now will actually be replaced by AI.”
With AI managing routine, administrative tasks, people will work differently in the future. "Collaboration, creativity, innovation, and problem-solving are going to be much more important," explains Remley. The office as a locus for all of that. Soft skills will become more important as tasks once done manually by people get automated and the remaining tasks become more human and require good soft skills.
2. Employee Experience Will Matter More
An audience member predicted that employee experience will be even more important as routine, manual work gets offloaded to AI/automation. People need to be engaged and supported to do their best work, so organizations must deliver good employee experiences
“You can have the best technology in the world and make all the RTO mandates you want and try to enforce them, but if people’s onsite experience and productivity aren’t supported, they simply won’t come into the office," argued the audience member. As AI does more, the experience of human beings connecting inside the office IRL will matter more.
3. Generational and Technological Shift Will Transform Workplaces
Hasson explained that “millennials and Gen Z will represent 65% of the workforce by 2027, with millennials occupying more leadership roles.” These younger generations will be more comfortable leveraging technology like AI and machine learning to help automate and personalize their workflows throughout the day, even during their commuting time.
In a competitive talent landscape, organizations that best accommodate these demographic shifts by empowering people in how they prefer to work (for example, with booking software, AI, and other emerging technologies) will do better at talent acquisition and retention.
4. Data Privacy Will Still Matter
An audience member highlighted data privacy as an important consideration as AI transforms how people work. “People will always be concerned about how their personal information is being used to fuel technology and about the balance between convenience and data privacy.”
Remley added that “people are so used to providing their information in exchange for convenience, especially Gen Z. It’s just an everyday thing for them to share their digital lives.” With new forms of AI emerging, new data risks will doubtless grow alongside the technology.
5. Physical Spaces & IRL Experiences Will Be Vital for Business
Remley believes that “more sales activity is going to happen in person because people will increasingly be inhabiting a zero trust environment as they relate digitally. How can I trust anybody if I'm getting bombarded with a million spam emails a day?” Looking someone inn the eye and developing that deep-level of trust will become catalysts for driving business relationships.
6. The Office Will Be a Locus for Great Experiences
Hasson has seen increasing competition in office amenities as companies seek to deliver unique and memorable employee experiences. She mentioned next-level amenities such as meditation rooms and quiet rooms for introverts. “AI is going to give us so much more information about what employees want in terms of amenities and how we can elevate employee experience in the workplace, making the job of chief workplace experience officer that much easier and more data-informed.”
7. Scheduling Flexibility Will Support Productivity
An audience member offered that “employers will need to be flexible with their employees around their commute times and when people start and finish the work day" in order to support better work-life balance. "You also need technology tools that support flexible work and scheduling tools for hybrid employees. Maybe someone gets their work done onsite between seven and three instead of between nine and five.”
Flexible working hours will be among the key trends of a future workplace, and it's one that enhances employee mental health and physical health.
8. Tech Tools and Stacks Will Consolidate
Hasson highlighted the need for enabling workplace technologies, but also emphasized the need for tech integration and consolidation. “Buildings have their apps, people have workplace apps, scheduling and booking apps, wearables and more. There will be a greater need for the consolidation of tech stacks, both to benefit end users and for leaders who are in workplace experience management roles.”
Remley was seen nodding his head, before adding "we've done so much work at Robin so our tools can work well with each other and also with other tools."
9. Experimentation Will Be Key
Remley highlighted leadership’s need for data/workplace analytics as a way to course correct and iterate towards success in areas like CRE footprints and employee engagement and workplace strategies, “There's been so many curve balls thrown at leadership in the past few years. The leadership teams and organizations that have embraced experimentation and the use of data have found more success than others.” Working practices and new employment models will surely change, and organizations must remain ready to adapt when they do.
10. Organizations Will Need to Make “Sea Changes”
Hasson referenced a mnemonic device that informs how she views workplace change: “sea” change.
“S” is for space and how organizations design and develop their space to accommodate the differing needs of people.
“E” is for the experiences created within your workspace through rituals, routines, and your organizational culture.
“A” is for how you approach workplace strategy – “it means how, when and where work happens, it's articulating what your policy is” so people can do their best work, says Hassan.
Those three factors interrelate and build upon one another, of course.
After an hour-long collective conversation about the future of work and workplace trends, the conversationalists broke up into smaller groups and continued into the late morning at the Robin HQ. As IRL conversations go about modern workplace trends, this was an insightful one. Speaking from this writer's personal experience, the blueberry muffins weren’t too bad either.