How the state of work is changing for the better

An important goal of the Design Research team is to bring the voice of the customer to our internal teams who are designing and building a more enlightened way of working. Flexible Futures brings to life our research and engages a conversation about the evolving working world. We reveal new flexible approaches to collaboration, creativity, innovation, productivity and happiness at work. This is only the beginning.

There’s no doubt that the decade is off to a troubling start. Around the world, infrastructures designed to protect our health, societies, and economies are in need of radical rethinking. As the implications of these changes become clear, questions about how we work have been placed at the forefront of global debate.

Whether you’re in Berlin, Tokyo, or the canyons of Mill Valley, California, the most resilient workplaces will embrace increased flexibility. These shifts will empower people to work from anywhere. They will permit a greater variety of work schedules; prompt new ways for workers to meet, collaborate, and learn from one another; influence city planning; and enable new approaches to a career path. This is what we call “flexible futures.”

Flexible locations

Flexible work locations used to mean open offices with common spaces and breakout rooms. But as more teams embrace distributed work, work will increasingly take place anywhere—from a shared office to your kitchen table, and anywhere in between.

Distributed work isn’t new. Tech company Basecamp has been remote-only for over 20 years, and even wrote a book about it. The software development company GitHub likewise has over a decade’s experience as a largely distributed workforce, sharing its wisdom with distributed-work newcomers via blog posts. Distributed work, once seen as a relatively niche option, has been propelled into the mainstream since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Companies have learned they need to have a distributed-work strategy in order to take on whatever comes,” explains Kate Lister, president of San Diego–based consultancy Workplace Analytics.

Because many people have reported high levels of satisfaction in working from home, even during challenging pandemic times, and companies like Twitter and Hitachi have announced new remote-work options for the indefinite future, commercial real-estate agents have started to get nervous. It seems likely, though, that the office is here to stay, even in a post-pandemic world. “The argument has been quite binary, so it’s either about the future of work being completely distributed … or it’s everybody in the office all at the same time. And I think the truth of the matter is going towards hybridity,” says Annie Auerbach, co-founder of London-based cultural insight agency Starling and author of the book Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.
“The argument has been quite binary, so it’s either being about the future of work being completely distributed…or it’s everybody in the office all at the same time. And I think the truth of the matter is going towards hybridity,” says Annie Auerbach, co-founder of London-based cultural insight agency Starling and author of the book Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.”

Annie Auerbach

Author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life

Information workers can expect employers to experiment with location in the years ahead. For example, a workplace might provide options to work from home for focused tasks, paired with shared office spaces conducive to in-person collaboration. “We’ll think about the times when we are together in quite an intentional way,” Auerbach adds. And rather than defining a new company standard, individual choice may become the new normal. “My perfect flex won’t be the same as your flex.”
Woman working on a small model at workstation
Last Lemon’s Lisa Swerling working at her home studio in California
A small model being held and painted
Some self-employed individuals, like creative partners Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar of Last Lemon, have long switched up their work location. Originally from South Africa and now living in Marin County, California, the married couple has created illustrated content and fine art together for two decades. 
Photo of framed illustrations of a red safari truck and a blue abstract face
Sometimes they work out of their home studio, and other times, while traveling the world, they’ll work from locations such as Botswana or Seychelles for months at a time. In the early days, Swerling says, going online from remote locations felt almost like science fiction. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and how is this happening? How is this even possible?’” Later, they were surprised by how easily they maintained relationships with European partners after moving to the United States. “It was almost a little disconcerting how the distance didn’t make a difference.”

Flexible schedules

Perhaps the most interesting thing about having broader options for where you work is how it also influences when you work. Rather than the traditional 9-to-5, distributed work enables a more flexible working day.

For many teams, a nuanced approach to working hours doesn’t happen overnight. Distributed-workplace pioneer and tech entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg explains in his blog that when companies first go remote, they often mimic an in-office experience, still expecting employees to sit at their desk during the entire workday. He argues that more-evolved, remote-first organizations embrace asynchronous work conducted when it suits people best.

As employers relax their strict requirements for working hours, a profound leap occurs: presenteeism-based cultures become outcome-based cultures. “We don’t work best in marathons; we work best in sprints,” says Kate Lister. “We’ve known that people are best managed when they’re given goals and given the tools to meet those goals, and when they’re given the autonomy to do their job. We’ve known that since the ‘50s, but that’s not how we’ve been operating. … If people get their job done, if they’re being measured by results and they’re succeeding, then what do you care when they work?” She adds that in an outcome-based model, managers have to be comfortable with not monitoring their employees’ every move, which is a significant shift for some workplaces.

Some managers, like Dropbox VP of Design Alastair Simpson, have already embraced a high-trust approach to managing that emphasizes autonomy. “If you hire incredibly smart people and try to tell them exactly how to work under a heavy-handed process, you’re not going to get a really good outcome. But if you give them the right goals, and the right tools, I think people can do amazing work,” he says.

Alastair Simpson, VP Design, Dropbox

Having more control over their working hours actually makes people more productive, not less. “The big fear—that if you allow people autonomy over their time, productivity will fall—has proven to be groundless,” says Annie Auerbach.

The challenge then for individuals working remotely is to use more flexible schedules to their advantage: crafting boundaries, working when they’re most efficient, and not falling into the trap of never turning off. As Auerbach explains, “The last thing you want to do is to trade ‘place’ presenteeism with ‘digital’ presenteeism—to swap the 9-to-5 with the 24/7—because then we will just be importing the bad habits of the workplace into a new, flexible space and pretending that it’s true flex.”

Nicolas Leschke, CEO and founder of ECF Farmsteads

Nicolas Leschke, CEO of Berlin-based startup ECF Farmsystems, says he’s learned how to create personal boundaries with the help of a few tricks, like turning off his phone at night and not making his work email too accessible on his phone’s home screen. “It’s very difficult to get it out of your head,” he adds. “But currently I think I’m doing pretty good in that sense. And I guess I had to learn it over time.”

Workplaces also have it in their interest to keep their employees from burning out. “People’s well-being—their mental and their physical well-being—is just absolutely critical to their performance,” says Kate Lister. “You didn’t hear things like ‘flexibility’ and ‘work–life balance’ and ‘mental health’ in the C-suite much before this, but we’re definitely hearing it now.”

As Annie Auerbach explains, flexible schedules benefit a wide range of workers—not only parents but also those caring for aging relatives, those with interests they want to pursue, and those who simply need more personal time. “It’s a new way of seeing things: rather than seeing flexibility as something that you have to grudgingly accept, you see flexibility as the way of the future, the way to attract the best possible talent, and the way for your workforce to feel fulfilled and balanced.”

Flexible tools

The good news for workplaces is that distributed-work tools aren’t so different from the digital tools that many already have in their toolkit; they just happen to be essential for conducting work remotely. “I don’t just mean the communication technologies such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. I also mean the collaboration technologies like Dropbox. … We wouldn’t be able to be remote without them,” says Melanie Cook, managing director at education company Hyper Island

Cook says she’s observed a newfound optimism about the power of technology to support people’s work rather than be a scary force in the background that threatens to take our jobs through mass automation. Instead, “It’s taking away some of the stresses of commuting. It’s giving us more time back with our family.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge catalyst for digital transformation, as many businesses are forced to bring so much of their paperwork online,” says Whit Bouck, COO at e-signature company HelloSign (a Dropbox company), which allows distributed teams to sign official paperwork without needing to be in the same room. This can include everything from employee onboarding documents to contracts with suppliers. “Businesses need a way to continue making these important agreements online, and we make it easy and safe to do so,” says Bouck.

"I think the tools have a way to go as far as using technology tools to reinforce culture. I think we’re not quite there yet

Kate Lister , President of San Diego-based consultancy Workplace Analytics.

As teams adopt more and more types of digital tools—for e-signing, whiteboarding, project management, chat, and other collaborative activities—workers need to be able to easily navigate among them. Tools are starting to offer better integration so they can work in concert rather than compete for your attention. Case in point: In 2019, Dropbox launched Dropbox Spaces, intended as not only storage but also an important hub for collaboration and integration with other tools such as Slack, Zoom, and Trello. “We are becoming more platform- and workflow-oriented. Dropbox Spaces allows teams to bring together multiple files from different locations into a central place, enabling thoughtful collaboration. It’s really an evolution of what first made Dropbox a success,” explains Alastair Simpson.

 

Ultimately, digital work tools will need to do more for distributed teams than support productivity; they’ll need to support the emotional and creative needs of a community when its members are not in close proximity. “You do lose the novelty that comes from working around other people, the creativity you get from an impromptu coffee break, or inspiration from peeking at someone’s computer screen,” says Fred Wordie at Berlin-based creative agency Kids, who created I Miss The Office during pandemic lockdown to mimic the sounds of an office. He realizes the sounds themselves aren’t actually compelling, but rather the people producing them are. “That’s why many people find the site comforting.”

illustration of different living and work environments connected by staircases

 

Creating digital alternatives for these accidental, informal moments among coworkers will be no small feat. “I think the tools have a way to go, as far as using them to reinforce culture. I think we’re not quite there yet,” says Kate Lister.

Many distributed workforces currently rely on team video calls, posts, and chat threads to build culture. Eventually, new features and tools will emerge to better support diverse and serendipitous encounters across an organization. 

 

Flexible relationships

Rather than directly replicating office culture, distributed work may be more successful leveraging new dynamics in a digital environment.

A distributed-work structure certainly makes it easier to connect at scale. For example, team-building company The Go Game, which has been leading in-person and hybrid events for teams since 2001, now touts a virtual platform that can scale an experience to more than 1,500 people across the world. “We’re all about creating a virtual experience that bridges the distance for people working remotely,” says Ian Fraser, co-founder and CEO. “Companies need a solution that connects people in authentic, inclusive, dynamic ways.”

Bridging geographical divides also has the potential to enable more diverse and inclusive networking, mentoring, and hiring practices. FREE THE WORK, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit advocacy initiative, is a searchable database and content platform that features underrepresented creators, with the goal of making them more discoverable for TV, film, and advertising companies around the world. “We believe that tapping into talent that’s been historically underrepresented will lead to a renaissance of creativity, to the benefit of the world. Representation matters,” says the FTW team. “Authentic storytelling is part of that experience. We must have more stories out in the world showing all of us what is possible.”
Panel of women and men sitting together at an event

In some respects, connecting remotely also minimizes bias among everyday colleagues. Kate Lister notes that communicating virtually can reduce hierarchy, giving introverts and others a more equitable voice. “It really levels the playing field; everybody has the opportunity to have a say.” 

As Annie Auerbach explains, the trope of being able to bond better in an office environment doesn’t express the full story. “There’s the fear that, working from home, we’re now isolated and not feeling a part of something. My big watch-out here is that we felt like that [wearing] headphones while not talking in the office. It’s not an issue of remote working—it’s an issue of remote connections.” Building trust among team members may ultimately depend less on specific tools or platforms and more on practices that are authentically human. Periodic social gatherings, or activities where team members get to know each other in deeper ways, can help.

Kate Lister adds, “It turns out from the research that we don’t need a lot of face time to maintain trust bonds. And, in fact, most of the virtual companies will get together maybe once or twice a year and often do nothing but socialize. Those infrequent get-togethers seem to be all they need to keep the level of trust high.”

Melanie Cook says her team created a virtual practice of two daily meetings during pandemic lockdown. The morning meeting is tactical, and the afternoon meeting is informal, replacing what might have previously been a casual corridor encounter. “Our afternoon chat is often sort of random. It’s just a sanity check.”  

Flexible cities

As people’s day-to-day working life reaches new levels of flexibility, cities too could change.

A host of new factors will influence where people live and work. For example, those who traditionally left their hometowns for better economic opportunities in large cities may no longer need to. Zhenru Goy of Goy Architects—a small architecture firm whose three partners are located in Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand—says work is organized around their lives, with each partner living close to family and friends and coordinating in the cloud.

Expensive cities where workers have flocked for jobs might experience some relief, as people leave for suburban or rural properties that have space for a home office and access to nature. And some communities might even be able to revitalize their economies. “There are places across the country and across the world that are actively recruiting remote workers and giving them training; training locals to be good remote-work candidates; and, in some cases, even giving them a relocation stipend to move there,” says Kate Lister. “They’re desperate to add new types of jobs to their economies.”

Cities filled with flexible workers will organize themselves in new ways, rethinking the traditional commute between the residential and commercial zones of a city. C40 Cities, a global network of cities working to address climate change, depicts a world in which everything you need is accessible within 15 minutes of travel. Mixed-use city development—where home, work, retail, and entertainment happen in the same area—may even prove beneficial to work itself, as Goy has found in her architectural practice. “I discover new things when I go into the surrounding environment, to see, to touch, to feel, to experience, and to communicate with the community. I think to be a better designer is to get in touch with what is in the locale around me,” she says.

Annie Auerbach envisions new types of working arrangements, such as a neighborhood hub where people from different industries and age groups can do their thing in a vibrant, shared location. “Having autonomy … doesn’t necessarily mean being alone,” she explains. She imagines this place being more diverse and community-oriented than today’s coworking spaces. After all, as populations become older in many parts of the world, the idea of dropping out of the workforce at a certain age may change. Auerbach says, “The notion that we stop at a particular moment and transition into leisure is … becoming less common.” She notes that older people are starting entirely new businesses later in life.

Flexible selves

When it comes to individual workers, the future will demand both a reactive and proactive approach to working.

People will need to react to the rise of mass automation, meaning that technology and artificial intelligence will fill some roles that have typically been performed by people. Multimedia artist and designer Carrie Sijia Wang explores potential implications in her dystopian piece “An Interview with ALEX,” which simulates a job interview with an artificial-intelligence HR manager. “’An Interview with ALEX’ aims to bring up the potential issues of letting technology take over without fully understanding how it works, whom it works for, what consequences it will lead to, and who will end up paying for the consequences,” says Wang.

As some jobs disappear, new roles will certainly be created. According to a Dell Technologies report, the Institute for the Future predicts that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. People will become less essential for repetitive tasks and more essential for uniquely “human” skills such as critical thinking and collaboration. Melanie Cook predicts a “global upskilling emergency” in which people will need to be trained for these jobs of the future.

Auerbach adds, “We need actually to be educating ourselves throughout our lives. Education can’t be front-loaded because technology is changing, and skills are evolving, and we need to keep on scaling up, learning and relearning as we progress through our lives.” Accelerated training opportunities are already popping up to respond to adapting career needs, such as Google Career Certificates, are already popping up to meet this need.

Adapting to these changing circumstances means that many careers can no longer continue on autopilot. People may need to take a more proactive stance, exploring and shifting to find their stride. Auerbach says to expect “a more meandering path, where they might want to move horizontally or diagonally into different fields. They might want to stop and travel. They might want to stop and learn before they go back into the workplace. And so all of these visions are much more blended … as we move through our lives.”

Even in Japan, where companies traditionally have had a policy of lifetime employment, people are starting to think more flexibly about their careers. Tokyo-based En Factory provides a service that helps companies support their employees in getting and maintaining side jobs within the company and beyond. “Side jobs are becoming acceptable nowadays because their employees can gain new experience and new skills,” says Masaki Shimizu, chief business officer at En Factory. He sees side jobs as a win-win situation for both companies and their workers. Companies get to leverage the new skills that their employees develop, and workers expand their career prospects. Shimizu says most of En Factory’s own employees have side jobs, from building websites to providing clothing for dogs. He has four jobs, one of which involves running a hedgehog cafe. He said his approach to work was seen as very unusual when he started his side jobs in 2012—he was even featured in news stories—but now there are enough people doing it that he shares tips and best practices with them.

 

Masaki Shimizu

Freelancing and entrepreneurship will continue to be riskier and less stable than traditional full-time roles, so these workers will need better social safety nets. One example is Alia, a portable benefits platform for domestic workers like nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers. Several employers or clients can contribute to a worker’s Alia benefits, which may include paid sick days and access to insurance products like life insurance. “There are so many people working more than 40 hours a week [who] don’t have any kind of scaffolding or protection around them because those 40 hours may be spread over 40 worksites instead of a single employer,” says Palak Shah, founding director of NDWA Labs, the organization that created Alia. “Alia is the canary in the coal mine for the future of work; we knew that if we could solve these problems for domestic workers, we could solve them for every worker.”

Artist couple Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar embody the meandering path that may lie ahead for many: “What we always find interesting about our story, because we’ve got to a really amazing place, is it is checkered with failures,” says Swerling. “And it’s hilarious, and it’s inspiring, because first of all, we are blessed with a kind of innate optimism. And you couldn’t really do what we do without being optimists, because you wouldn’t keep going. ... You have to keep reinventing your work.”

Woman in orange shirt and man in blue stand together surrounded by cartoons
Four young people stand on blue van in looking up at the sky with binoculars

Ultimately, people will continue to seek purpose and fulfillment through work, even as their journeys take more twists and turns. Nicolas Leschke at ECF Farmsystems describes this sense of fulfillment for his current role: “You’re within the city boundaries; you have a green job, which is very satisfying; you work with something that is natural. And I think that all gives you good karma.”

Zhenru Goy at Goy Architects says their flexible work model allows them to slow down and evolve gradually, to work as purposefully as possible. “We are still experimenting and figuring out what we should do for architecture, so there is a constant contemplation of what and how we should contribute that is of benefit to the community and environment. … We can take the time to think, but we are also nimble in our practice, and we can make an impact with our projects.”

Woman in white shirt and glasses reading from a book in a workspace

Melanie Cook suggests approaching your entire career with “slow thinking” as opposed to panicked, fight-or-flight responses to what’s happening in the world. She recommends “giving yourself the time to really plan your career and plan some experiments … in order to find the most successful path for you.”

Kate Lister hopes workplaces will find better ways to identify and leverage people’s skills, interests, and strengths. “That’s when we’re going to get the peak performance from people,” she says.

Ultimately, flexible approaches to the future of work will enable us to confront what lies ahead, do good work, and adjust to whatever arises. Our flexible futures will demand resolve in the face of adversity. As Melanie Cook says, “The optimistic point of view is that humans have an incredible resilience. They can adapt, they can adapt, they can adapt.”

Our flexible futures will also empower us to focus proactively on what matters most to us. Changing work circumstances will present an opportunity to find better ways to balance our priorities—from passions to people to the professional pursuits we find most meaningful and worthwhile. We should ensure that every aspect of a person will find a way to thrive, and that the ultimate outcome is as much about life as it is about work. Because, as Annie Auerbach says, “There’s always a very human story behind why people want to work flexibly.”

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