How telecommuting will shape our work and our minds
In our new Augmented Reality column, BBC Capital will explore scenarios you might encounter in your not-so-distant future. First, we’re going to look at what would happen if your 40-hour workweek were entirely devoid of other people.
Throughout my career I’ve worked with people that I’ve never met in person. In theory, I could spend an entire day without meeting another human face-to-face.
But could this kind of self-imposed isolation become standard working practice in the future?
Studies show that in the US, the number of telecommuters rose 115% between 2005 and 2017. And in early 2015, around 500,000 people used Slack, the real-time chat room programme, daily. By last September, that number soared to over 6 million.
In 2017 a Gallup poll revealed that 43% of 15,000 Americans say they spend at least some of their time working remotely, a 4% rise from 2012. And a 2015 YouGov study found that 30% of UK office workers say they feel more productive when they work outside their workplace.
How would we feel if we never had to work with another person face-to-face again? Would we care? Have things gone so far that we might not even notice?
Our drift towards working alone could have a significant impact on our physical and mental health, the way our companies run and even shape our cities. We spoke to a group of experts to find out what they think.
What could a human-free workplace look like?
In 2018 it seems we’re in the middle of a work-from-home era of pyjamas and Slack. But futurists envisage something a lot more science-fiction in decades to come. The working day could start, for instance, by uploading our schedules and daily goals into virtual reality doppelgangers – representations of ourselves that we then dispatch to online meetings in our stead.
“My digitally-engineered persona might be interacting with clients and employees and customers around the world simultaneously,” says James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, and who has advised three White House administrations on future workplace trends. “I can direct it and it can have a certain degree of autonomous decisions.”
He’s working with scientists to develop these online bots: “On the back end, there will be massive supercomputer capabilities and The Cloud.” But they’ll look like whatever we want them to look like: “Kids may want to choose a dinosaur, guys might want to choose Emma Stone,” says Canton.
Office workers are already happily abandoning their face-to-face interactions in droves, in favour of what’s widely referred to as flexible working, or telecommuting. But if human beings “are such social creatures” then won’t sitting hunched over glowing screens all day risk damaging our mental health, or even impair our emotional intelligence?
What does working alone do to your mind?
Some believe the increase in telecommuting will inevitably lead to employee ennui at best, and a rise in depression at worst.
Faith Popcorn, a futurist who has advised giants like AT&T, IBM and Coca-Cola on the future of the workforce says, “you’re going to have to go somewhere. Find some amusement.” And that diversion could involve companies sanctioning staff down time to watch YouTube videos or listen to music or even going on trips, she says. Still, Popcorn believes a human-free, remote-only workplace will inevitably prompt some employees to go on “fantasy adventures”: that could meaning anything from extra holidays to retreats to immersive VR worlds to even pornography addiction.
“For some people, (telecommuting) is not a good fit – the lack of informal interactions with co-workers throughout the day wears on them,” says David Ballard, a doctor at the American Psychological Association who oversees its Center for Organizational Excellence. “Or the lack of structure, when they’re left to their own devices at home or in a remote setting. It’s harder to stay organised.”
And while sending holographic likenesses of ourselves along to board meetings sounds pretty fun, going through the cycles of the workweek entirely alone might not. It will likely make it harder for workers and their managers to build any sort of sense of collaborative team.
“It certainly makes it more challenging to build that camaraderie when you’re not physically there sharing meals at a lunch room – that does change the dynamic,” Ballard adds.