‘WFH’ is an acronym now universally recognised. But even before the pandemic, remote working had been slowly increasing, with around 5% of UK employees primarily working from home in 2019 and 30% having experience of it. The benefits can include more productive working time, fewer office distractions and more flexibility, to name a few. A Stanford study in 2017 pinpointed a 13% increase in productivity of remote workers compared to office-based staff
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Other factors such as smartphone adoption and social media proliferation mean that people are more connected than ever, and physical location is becoming arbitrary. But at what cost? Many studies have reported that our digital world has led to increased feelings of isolation, with consequential negative impacts on mental health. Wellness – along with work, retail and leisure – is one of the four cornerstones of the coordinated response to COVID-19 here at Cambridge Consultants. Our global team is working to build a strategic framework to benefit our clients, partners and communities.
What then are the implications for wellness in – and out – of the workplace right now, and what role will technology play in providing the support that humans need? What needs to be done to ensure that employees are happy and productive in our ‘new normal’ world? Shifts in working habits caused by the pandemic could present significant new opportunities as lockdowns are lifted. And according to a PwC survey, half of UK companies plan to make remote working a permanent option for roles that allow it.
Individual connection is essential
First and foremost, individual connection is essential – but it is one of the key elements missing from current teleconferencing solutions. A screen of faces on a conference meeting, all seeming to be looking directly at you for hours, is unnatural. It requires more focus and mental energy than reading individual facial cues in a face-to-face meeting, according to representatives from the American Psychological Association. Could technology provide a solution for "Zoom fatigue" to overcome this psychological reaction?
Additionally, it is easier to assess the mental state of colleagues by glancing across in person than it is when communicating via email. How will employers gauge the feelings of workers when their only interaction is organised through a formal setting?
Creativity is another issue. Studies have shown that the short, informal ‘water cooler’ conversations colleagues experience can be valuable for generating new ideas and improving productivity. It is something that tech giants have bought into, by intentionally designing open plan office spaces with collaborative areas. How could this be emulated with a physically dispersed workforce?
Beyond working life, better tools to support mental health will also be required. Home gym interest has increased 300% as people have been forced to adapt to mass gym closures. Could this trend continue following the pandemic and result in personalised, connected home gyms?
Technology bridging the gap
Teleconferencing services have become the norm, with over 200 million people using Zoom daily throughout March. Although these numbers might not be sustained when global lockdowns end, increased adoption will continue to drive expectations of improved functionality, to replace the needs of face-to-face meetings. Additional integration of the software with productivity apps will be required, and features becoming commonplace in office meeting rooms such as intelligent voice recognition and background noise cancelling will likely become more commonplace to deal with household distractions.
Recent safety concerns with Zoom and other solutions highlight a need to enhance digital security for many employers. Connectivity from homes to businesses and rapid adoption of new software platforms mean that there are many elements that must be secured. Central to this is the problem of digital identity. How do we know who signed a document? Are the correct people granted access to my call? Enhanced multi-factor authentication is a viable solution. A longer-term solution is self-sovereign identity. Operations such as the Sovrin Foundation are looking to develop platforms that can allow people to manage their digital identity and engage differently with various organisations. This technology is still yet to be proved but could pose an exciting solution that balances privacy and identity.
VR could enable a richer connection and is being pursued in several fields. In a mental health setting, the technology is being used for therapy to treat anxiety and phobias but could equally be applied to deliver support to remote workers for a more personalised and meaningful experience. VR and XR could also be used to enhance collaborative working. Seymourpowell, for example, has developed Reality Works, a system to enable designers to work collaboratively from remote locations with the aim of allowing people to feel more united with their colleagues.
To support an even more immersive sensory experience, haptic wearables, such as those developed by HaptX are showing promise for future use in training and design. This additional layer of feedback could also enhance the personalisation and emotional quality of a video call with a family member or friend.
The collaboration continues
Interested to learn more?
Habits in work and leisure are changing dramatically, but the changes mark an acceleration, not a phase. There is a need for better tools to maintain both productivity and sanity, and these will be just as important as society emerges from lockdown. At Cambridge Consultants, we’re continuing to collaborate with clients and colleagues to better understand what the post-COVID will need – and what technologies will come to the fore. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss any of these topics in more depth.