If working during a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that commuting to a brick-and-mortar office is not the only effective option for businesses and their employees. A UN study shows nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, meaning increasing population density could also make commuting to and from work a nightmare for most. Also, the restrictions on mobility and an aversion to shared commuting are additional factors making remote work a more viable option for many businesses.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Ben Waber.

Ben Waber, PhD, is the president and co-founder of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company. The Humanyze AI platform and one of a kind Humanyze Organizational Health Score provide the world’s most comprehensive objective measurement of the workday and the group collaboration behaviors that lead to an effective and healthy organization. Our SaaS-based analytics, benchmarks, and indicators are used by enterprises to inform and accelerate their Operational, HR, Workplace, and Digital Transformation initiatives. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, and received his Ph.D. in organizational science from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as HBR, Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design. His book, People Analytics, was published by the Financial Times Press in 2013.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

I received my BA and MA in Computer Science at Boston University, where I was developing interfaces for people with disabilities using computer vision. As I delved more into this area, I saw that Sandy Pentland, one of the pioneers of the field at MIT, had moved on to researching networks. I read more about that area and became fascinated by the potential of small changes in behavior to have a disproportionate influence on entire systems, and I was lucky enough to join Sandy’s group a few years later for my PhD.

Humanyze spun out of my research at MIT with my co-founders, Taemie Kim and Daniel Olguin, so I’ve really been working in the area of workplace analytics for over 15 years.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

Ten to fifteen years from now, the companies achieving both short and long-term success will be those that are equally data-driven and people-centric when it comes to organizational decision-making. While this was certainly true pre-pandemic, COVID-19 also shed light on the importance of remaining iterative and adaptable — particularly in the midst of uncertainty. The increased use of workplace data and technology will be a “must” in the future of work, but the most successful companies will be the ones that do so in a way benefiting both employees and the enterprise. As remote and/or hybrid work continues into 2022, companies must embrace these new ways of measuring employee performance and defining success outside of just performance KPIs or overall rating systems.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

Workplace strategy can’t be one-size-fits-all. Organizational success requires employee trust and confidence as much as it requires the right data to support and validate future business decisions.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

There are a number of challenges companies need to address in the shift to a new workplace model. Humanyze collected close to 1,500 responses from knowledge workers about their experience working from home and outlook on the return to the office for its Future of Work Survey in both the Spring and Fall of 2021. According to the results, employees are not confident their companies will meet that challenge. Organizations planning steps to reduce attrition or facilitate information flow will have to work to bridge this gap. To do so, executive leaders need to continue measuring objective changes in collaboration patterns and merge that with subjective data from employees to course correct and chart the best way forward. Also, employees listed in-person collaboration with teammates and their managers and informal social connections with colleagues as their top two reasons for returning to the office.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

Humanyze’s recent Future of Work survey found 63% percent of employees lack full confidence in their company’s post-pandemic workplace strategy — a 16% increase from the spring. Over half of the employees surveyed say they don’t feel informed about their company’s post-Covid-19 plans for how decisions get made. As more and more employees are given the flexibility to work from home, there is a sense of lesser collaboration amongst the team members. We are not in an environment where impromptu conversations are happening at the coffee machine or water cooler anymore. While we’ve certainly learned remote work can be a productive and viable option for companies during the pandemic, companies must understand the specific collaboration and workspace needs of employees and different groups across the organization in order to inform whether it’s the right decision for their workforce.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

The future of work is uncertain. We really don’t know when, or if, we will be returning to “normal,” but I’d say remote and hybrid work are definitely here to stay. For better or worse, the shift to working remotely has drastically changed how we go about our days and has illuminated both the potential benefits and challenges of working from home. For example, with no clear delineation between work life and home life in a remote environment, work can feel all-consuming if you’re not regularly leaving the house. Parents working from home have to integrate taking care of their children while ensuring their work is done. At the same time, many say working from home has led to fewer interruptions and more efficient meetings. One thing that is certain is that working remotely during the pandemic forced a necessary paradigm shift when it comes to how companies and employees view work-life balance and how we define an engaged, productive, and high-performing workforce.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

We’ve now witnessed the introduction of 3 COVID variants, but the workforce has adapted and done what it has needed to in order to move forward. This makes me optimistic because we’ve proven we can navigate turbulent times of change if we remain adaptable and iterative in our decision-making. We have been dealt a challenging but unique opportunity for experimentation — people are constantly trying new workplace strategies or even new ways of managing. I’m hopeful the default approaches of “copying and pasting the strategy of a successful company” or informing critical decisions based on subjective opinions alone will disappear for good.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

Organizations that ensure their workforce is happy, healthy, and empowered to succeed while working from their location of choice will be the most effective at mitigating disengagement, ‘toxic productivity’, or burnout. Companies should encourage employees to take wellness and mental health days without pushback or negative repercussions from managers, as well as ensure team members take screen breaks during the day.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

The important message is that each of these is “great,” meaning they will each bring with them great, or significant, change we need to be ready for. In 2022, holistic use of subjective and objective data to inform decisions must trump opinions or arbitrary trends to retain a successful, happy workforce.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  • Globalization.

The impacts of global relations on trade, increased political polarization, and the shock effects of the pandemic are being most felt by businesses heavily relying on international supply chains. To survive in such a landscape, savvy businesses leverage technological advancements that facilitate seamless, global communications in real-time. This enabled the modern workplace to become a connected, virtual and boundaryless entity, resulting in a rise of globally managed work pools.

  • Evolution of workplace.

If working during a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that commuting to a brick-and-mortar office is not the only effective option for businesses and their employees. A UN study shows nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, meaning increasing population density could also make commuting to and from work a nightmare for most. Also, the restrictions on mobility and an aversion to shared commuting are additional factors making remote work a more viable option for many businesses.

  • Multigenerational workforce.

The multigenerational nature of today’s workforce presents both new challenges and unique opportunities for business leaders. With increased life expectancy and people retiring much later in life, workplaces can have employees spanning as many as five generations at any given time. Experts agree a multigenerational workforce offers many benefits and can increase a business’ success rate but in order to achieve that, companies must effectively manage diverse expectations, values, and workstyles to form cohesive teams and organizations.

  • Facilitating Scalable and Flexible Workforces with Digital Transformation.

Technology has always played a major role in the way we work, and it will play an even bigger role in the future of work. One important distinction to make is that digital transformation isn’t about technology replacing the human workforce; it’s about digitizing how the workforce operates to help your people (and therefore your business) succeed.

  • Greater focus on employee well-being

It’s helpful to rethink the metrics previously used to gauge workforce performance and productivity and focus on making employee well-being a top priority, especially as companies shift to an in-person, remote, or hybrid workplace culture. Organizations that ensure their workforce is empowered to succeed while working from their location of choice reduce the risk of employee burnout.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

Quotes don’t do it for me so much. Rather, I get inspired when I read a paper that challenges assumptions that I’ve made about the world. Not only do I learn something from that research, but it reminds me to constantly question my assumptions.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

Nick De Cesare, Head Coach of the Cloud 9 League of Legends Team. I think he has one of the best perspectives on people management that I’ve ever heard in industry or academia.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Readers can access Humanyze’s latest resources in workplace analysis and organizational effectiveness by visiting our Knowledge Hub, or by following me on Twitter — @Bwaber.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.