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What’s in store for the flexible world of work in 2023?

The Flexibility predictions for 2023 and beyond

One of my maxims in writing about the future of work is, “The future is always plural and multispeed”. And that plurality includes things going into reverse or getting worse. We can’t assume an inevitable progression towards a better world. Especially after the experiences of the last three years.Hopefully that keeps these predictions grounded as well as speculative.

I’m going to look across technologies, workplace and work experience, and then take a dip into wider trends. I’ll also sandwich in from time to time where it could all go backwards or pear-shaped. And finally, get back to some rock-solid predictions (fingers crossed) that involve me.

Flexible Working is here to stay … but won’t always be very flexible

First of all, the genie is out of the bottle about flexible work. As Flexibility, founded in October 1993, approaches its 30th anniversary year, we can happily observe flexible work moving from a bizarre fringe idea to the mainstream in business and society. And this will become further entrenched in 2023.

More businesses will adopt various forms of smart and flexible working. Many governments, mainly in Europe, will enshrine new rights to request flexible work. For some, this will also involve certain protections for employees enshrined in law (such as the right to disconnect).

The bad news I that it won’t all necessarily be very smart – or for that matter, flexible. Old school resistance to flexibility will also be supplemented by a school of thought that says, “This flexibility is great. Let’s nail it down!” Expect to see rule-makers out in force, both from the command-and-control tendency on the one hand and from the regulators (especially in Europe) who still think in terms of set working hours and regulated workplaces with collective bargaining being the norm. Autonomy and choice is still regarded with suspicion from both left and right, by people who like everything to be standardised and packaged, in order to control.

Video, video, everywhere

An earlier prediction of ours from 2012 that within five to ten years communication through video would be ubiquitous proved to be correct! It probably wouldn’t have been, but for the impetus that the pandemic gave.

The “multispeed” factor in this trend was certainly visible by 2019. Organizations moving into smart/agile working were zooming ahead (so to speak) and adopting Skype for Business (as it was), WebEx and more. But they were still in a minority. Coupled with fast-growing consumer use of not-for-business Skype and FaceTime, however, the ground was being set for the revolution in video communication that occurred in 2020-2022.

This , of course, went hand-in-hand with enforced homeworking from early 2020. It’s been central to the success of this kind of flexible working. Employee demand is ensuring that it’s here to stay. And it will have a continuing major impact on communication and teamwork in 2023. No surprises there – but there’s much more that’s coming.

Technologies for work – bigger, bendier and more immersive

Having proved to be a lucrative market for existing players and new entrants, we can look forward to video collaboration enjoying the fruits of huge amounts of innovation and improved quality of experience in 2023.

We’ll see new and more flexible features. These will not only improve the somewhat clunky experience of virtual breakout rooms in meetings, but also enable more natural video encounters and side conversations within the framework of online meetings and events.

There’ll also be a slew of interactive features for idea-generation and capture that promise to revolutionise virtual teamwork – but most of these will not yet be better than the ones that currently exist. Caveat emptor!

More significant will be new releases in screen technologies. Mainly larger – much larger – screens at affordable prices. We’ll need them for more immersive video interaction. These will make their way into homes as well as workplaces.

And there’ll be more flexible screens, going way beyond the curate’s egg of z-fold phones. Screens you can roll up, unfold etc – and we’ll spend the next 5 years working what they can best be used for.

Expect big announcements by the autumn about (almost) affordable holopresence applications for workplaces. We’ll be getting beyond beta here. Mostly it will involve booths. And companies providing services to enable stage holopresence for speakers in large town hall events, maybe with Elon Musk popping up holographically at Tesla like Banquo’s ghost (with a sink), after Twitter has done with him.

The metaverse won’t exist – but everything in it will

Linguistically, we’ve probably been going down a blind alley for a few millennia by having a single noun for the universe. After all, it’s a shorthand way of saying “everything that there is”. It’s not one thing. It’s the ultimate definition of plurality, and its alleged unity is convenient but mythical.

The same is true of the metaverse. It’s a convenient way of lumping together a number of different technologies that create digital ways to enhance, simulate or interact with the experienced (and imagined) realities of the ordinary … er, universe.

So that’s augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, digital twins, gaming, digital currencies, blockchain, huge amounts of artificial intelligence and more data than we can ever possibly know what to do with (though intelligent machines might!).

The cartoony meeting places as in the infamous Mark Zuckerberg video are a distraction. Such virtual spaces for interaction will get better, but not significantly so in 2023. Especially when big screens, 3D technology and holopresence offer so much more in the short to medium term, and are more in line with our cognitive biases.

However, expect big developments in and uptake of AR, VR and MR in work contexts, particularly where there is a need to work with machinery and physical products, or simulate that (for modelling, diagnosis and training).

That should have an impact on how workplaces are designed to accommodate their use – but this is more likely to be ad hoc rather than planned in 2023. It will take a few years to ripple through.

Accenture is predicting that by 2030 a new category of worker will have emerged, describing people who spend all their time working in the metaverse. The recession is clipping the wings of investment in this field. But we will be able to detect one area of impact – those who either create or work within these digital realms will be increasingly footloose, adding to the trend of working anywhere.

Workplaces – smaller but beautifully formed?

In terms of workplace, we have multiple pressures towards shrinking them further. Longer term changes in how people work, accelerated by the pandemic experience, combine with recessionary imperatives to do more with less.

Most organisations could probably manage with at least 50% less office space. Relatively few will be so bold at this stage – but some will. By the end of 2023 we’ll have stronger data showing the extent of this trend.

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of buzz in the workplace and HR industries around human-centred workplaces, inclusivity, the importance of the sensory experience in the workplace, biophilia and ergonomics within activity-based workplaces and beyond. This has been boosted by employers looking for attractor factors to seduce people into coming into the office rather than working from elsewhere.

We’ll see a mixed picture in this regard. There will for sure be some great workplaces designed – and some of them will be built. But with the increased pressures on cost, we’re more likely to see beneficial features (great acoustics, biophilia, inspired settings for relaxation, socialisation and innovation, customisable environmental controls) salami-sliced, or just slashed, out of budgets. Strong advice – don’t let them do that!

This will result in many examples of unpleasant densification, and old-style hotdesking. This will lead to employees opting to work from anywhere else, with employers imposing more ill-considered mandates to go into the office even though the work doesn’t require it. Some of these will be high profile, and generate many column inches about how flexible working is dead (etc).

The trends to flexibility will in fact continue, but the dehumanising office will also be back with a vengeance – so we can continue to expect high levels of employee turnover where this happens.

Coworking and flexible officing will continue to evolve, with increasingly blurred boundaries between serviced offices, coworking centres, business lounges, incubators and business parks competing with overlapping offerings. Both landlords and locked-in occupiers will compete to make money from the ever-increasing redundant space they have, dressing everything up as being coworking or flexible space of some variety. Caveat emptor, once again!

More interestingly, there will be three strands of evolution in coworking space:

  • A shake-up in the sector lasting two or three years, with a fair few mergers and acquisitions, with a wave of less viable centres going under
  • Ever-growing interest from corporates for professional space for their employees – which in part spur the mergers and acquisitions as they look for scale and geographical reach amongst providers
  • Greater diversity of types of coworking centres – in particular beyond a focus on knowledge workers towards shared maker space and the provision of expert services in various forms of production.

Work experience and culture – where do we Belong?

There is a parallel universe in the people professions (HR, diversity, OD, etc), which addresses the ‘work environment’ without ever referencing the physical or virtual environments that we inhabit in our daily work. It’s human-centric without worrying about practical issues like workplace layouts, lighting levels, acoustics or providing the options for user control of their work environment and how that interfaces with automation. It’s all about relationships, values, and language.

Over the years I’ve seen considerable evolution in the language of equality and diversity. Networks are being rebranded as “affinity groups”. Clumsy words like “allyship” are migrating from academia to enter the vocabulary, making their way into guidelines and policies. The big word of 2023 in this field will be “Belonging”.

Actually, though I raise my eyes sometimes about the language and the occasional wielding of identity concepts like blunt instruments, there is a lot to like here and that can make the interpersonal work environment better. There’s a great deal of kindness, understanding, respect and endeavours to appreciate the world from the perspective of other people’s experience that is driving all this.

And I do like the word ‘belonging’. It could be divisive, if we interpret it as meaning to belong to mutually exclusive groups. But it’s really important for thinking through how, as different people, doing different work, and working at a greater variety of places and times, we can all belong to the one organisation and to our team(s). A big issue for 2023.

One aspect of this will be a big focus on equity. With regard to flexibility, it’s about ensuring fairness for those who have hands-on and site-specific work. Much of the narrative of 2020-22 has had an unbalanced focus on ‘remote work’, knowledge workers and offices.  Flexibility and working conditions for the other 55+% will be in sharp focus this year.

Will we reach “peak gush” in 2023?

It’s a problem that goes way beyond the workplace, but the dominance of passion and emotion over reason and evidence infuses the narrative of our time. It seems it’s becoming impossible to be authentic unless one has a heart-warming story about overcoming adversity, and finding one’s true self and true voice.

Subjective feeling trumps objective assessment. It’s good old Sturm und Drang kicking down the structures of Enlightenment empiricism once again. Gushing (self-promoting) stories carry the day whether on LinkedIn or a TV reality show.

Sooner or later we must reach “peak gush”, and we’ll say, “Enough!”

But unfortunately, that won’t be in 2023. It’s going to get worse. People who prefer objective evidence to shouting and banging the table, or who seek nuanced solutions to complex issues will increasingly be overwhelmed by those who have simple truths and a megaphone. It will probably take the best part of a generation to get through this.

In 2023, being able to separate substance from sham will be increasingly important for recruitment, and for recognising the right qualities in leaders.

‘I’m not a number, I’m a free man.’ Can you be both?

Measure me, track me, datify me!

In 2023 everything in the workplace will be measured. Workplace occupancy, movement, energy consumption, air quality, use of technology, number of meetings, your engagement, you work-life balance, your happiness, your access to nature, your heartrate, what applications you use … Possibly even your productivity.

There will be a combination of automated systems, apps, wearables, and the systems you use for work. Many of the apps and wearables for health and wellbeing extend the blurring of home/work boundaries further. The digital twin of your workplace may soon include a digital twin of yourself.

On the plus side, much of this is genuinely intended to improve the quality of the work experience, both physical and psychological.

On the downside, it can be seen as intrusive. The number of articles and studies talking about “the surveillance workplace” will rise exponentially (in the loose sense of the word). And will probably be characterised by passion and simplistic pronouncements, and by anecdote rather than evidence and objectivity.

The number of companies offering apps and automated systems will surge, as will the number of companies offering apps and dashboards to integrate all the apps and dashboards.

“I am not a number! I am a free man!” protested Number Six in the cult classic The Prisoner. It’s a protest most of us can identify with.

Of equal concern is how reliable the data will be. Does asking people about their happiness or other mood lead to a valid measurement, or do people feel stressfully pressured into making a show of being upbeat all the time? To misquote Burke, we might note that happiness, like liberty and other great abstractions, is often most profound when least remarked.

New writings on the flexible world of work

I can say with greater certainty that there will be new editions of my management book Smart Flexibility (2nd edition) and the summary Smart Working Handbook (3rd edition) coming off the physical and virtual presses in 2023.

These will address the post-pandemic workplace – not just the office! They will take us beyond the limitations of “hybrid working” with a comprehensive approach to a transformative “smart maturity”. Well, I’m looking forward to these anyway!

And there may be another as well, on the wider societal impacts of the new world of work. Watch this space!

In the meantime, I wish you all well as you navigate the vicissitudes and uncertainties of the year ahead, and hope you have a healthy, happy, successful – and flexible – 2023.