By Rick Farrell
In British author E.M. Forster’s 1909 dystopian science fiction novella “The Machine Stops,” individual human beings live isolated from one another, each in their own sealed-off underground room. People seldom venture out, instead content to communicate with one another only through a technology that seemingly anticipated the internet. (Pretty impressive for 1909, when television hadn’t even been invented!) Most people in this allegorical world embrace a life that’s mind-numbingly predictable and uneventful, and certainly devoid of any physical proximity to other human beings.
To hear some commentators describe it, society’s reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 has placed us on the brink of a “new normal” that in many ways mirrors the world Forster imagined. Ever since mask mandates, social distancing, and travel restrictions have become part of our daily life, society has been wondering about the potential role of these behaviors in our daily lives in the coming years. The extent to which these safeguards will remain in place as bulwarks against potential future pandemics remains an open question.
The future of decentralization
It’s very likely that in the future the physical locations of some workers will remain decentralized to some extent. In a survey conducted in October of 2020, five in ten CIOs noted the unexpected improvements in productivity that resulted when employees were forced to work from home. On average these CIOs expected to take advantage of this by doubling the at-home proportion of their workforces in 2021.
However, it’s more likely that the typical worker will ultimately find themselves back in the office for most of his or her working hours. This is because working at home, even with online meetings, has been found to be a drag on employees’ ability to collaborate effectively, with one survey estimating an 11% drop off. In addition, not only has morale clearly improved for those who’ve already returned to the office, the more days an employee spends in the office the greater that improvement has been. The magnitude of the increase was gauged at 40% overall, with a 54% gain among those who were back in the office at least four days a week.
For those employers concerned about avoiding the occurrence of another pandemic, bringing their workers back into the building will require even more creativity, in the form of in-office decentralization. These new physical lay-outs may entail some combination of work stations scattered around the floor rather than clustered together; wider corridors and possibly twice as many of them to allow for one-way flow of foot traffic in both directions; and larger conference rooms to allow for on-site social distancing.
And yet even with all these design innovations, it’s likely that the need for virtual meetings will remain, even when all the participants are in the same building. But virtual meetings require being tied to a desk or other fixed location, and limit the opportunity to communicate to short, pre-scheduled blocks of time. The sort of ongoing, spontaneous communication throughout the day that was supposed to be the open floorplan’s reason for being may well be stifled, along with the collaboration and the boost to morale normally spurred by that communication.
Screen-free virtual communication
But “virtual” communication doesn’t necessarily require a computer screen. Audio communication – that electronically produced sound of the human voice at the end of a telephone or a speaker – was virtual long before people started using that term for the configuration of pixels on a screen. Unlike the rigid confines of a virtual video meeting, employees can be connected for flexible audio communication at any time by implementation of a wearable two-way communication system consisting of a headset, transceivers, and receivers supplied to each worker. These systems are portable, comfortable, and unobtrusive.
The idea of spontaneous collaboration occurring during chance meetings at the water cooler or the copying machine is almost a cliché in the business world. With those encounters curtailed by the response to the pandemic, a two-way communication system can allow people to have those conversations while on the way to the water cooler or the copying machine.
And so even if the emerging world of work, office design, and protocols for human interaction are permanently shaped by the need for social distancing, the future doesn’t have to be one of dystopian detachment. The need for personal connection will always drive us, and that drive will result in new approaches that knock down the barriers to personal communication one by one.
The “machine” that ultimately stopped in Forster’s novella was a metaphor, an imaginary machine that had replaced human initiative. Today the word “machine” is better applied to a well-functioning business that takes human needs into account. The machine had sputtered during the worst of pandemic, but thanks to innovation in design and communication it’s poised to restart, and run more smoothly than ever.
About the Author
Rick Farrell, President, Plant-Tours.com. Rick is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of Plant-Tours.com for the last 18 years. He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments.