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“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

-Aristotle, Politics

There are many predictions on the future of work. People have predicted the end of e-mail, but that seems to be hanging around. Time Magazine predicted, “By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the US will, in effect, be independently wealthy.” Of course, one of my favorites is from Thomas Watson at IMB in 1943. He said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Most of the discussion about how work is changing revolves around technology and culture, which is not wrong. These two dominant trends are driving massive upheaval for commercial real estate.

“Being successful in this industry means being on the front end of trends, thinking about what those trends mean for the long-term,” said Robert Bowman, chairman of the Urban Land Institute’s Residential Neighborhood Council. “Those who understand major demographic changes will have a competitive edge.”

Technology Is Changing the Way We Work

You’re likely aware of how technology is changing the way we work. Faster internet connections, wireless, cloud storage, cell phones, and software are making remote work more viable than ever before. It was not that long ago when all work had to take place within the walls of the office. The contribution of technology to a worker’s productivity is nearly five times greater today than it was in the 70s, according to a study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research. Today, a significant amount of work can happen more effectively and from anywhere.

Culturally, technology has created a generational shift. Millennials, as well as Generation Z, have grown up in a hyper-connected world. They have a completely different view of how the world connects and operates. Some of their close friends are people they play games with online but have never truly met in real life. Many have had smartphones since they were very young, and communication methods like text and social media have formed their views of social interactions. A recent McKinsey & Company study calls Gen Z a “hypercognitive generation very comfortable with collecting and cross-referencing many sources of information and with integrating virtual and offline experiences.”

Today, there are entire companies built on remote work. One of the original members at Populus is Jaya, a software development company. In just 18-months, Jaya has built a global team with employees in Omaha, NE, as well as Miami, Fl, New York, NY, Bogota, CO, and Medellin, CO. Connected via the internet and using software like Slack and Github, the can effectively work across multiple timezones and continents.

It can be easy to look at the trends in technology or culture and make predictions about the growing decentralization of work. Might all work soon be remote? Will every company provide total flexibility? Perhaps the whole idea of office space is dying.

There’s more to the future of office

Or, perhaps, cultural trends and technology are not the whole picture. Maybe we’re missing one critical factor in the future office space: humans.

Are virtual connections the same as a physical community? A recent Science Magazine article argues virtual and physical communities are quite different. “The answer,” writes Etzioni, “at least according to several leading students of virtual communities, is that human relations in computer-mediated communities cannot be as intimate, strong, and affect-laden as in social communities.” That’s probably no surprise to many of us, though we might wish it wasn’t the case. Humans are wired for physical community and social interaction. Research says that as much as 93% of our communication is via body language. Over thousands of years, humans have learned to notice small details about spacing, movement, and tone when it comes to communication and community. Details that can’t come across via technology.

Technology may allow us to be more flexible in the way we interact, but there is still no replacement for in-person interaction. Humans need a community to be happy, productive, healthy people. Without a physical community, we literally start to get sick and die.

“Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion,” writes UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, “it’s been baked into our operating system.” There is a lot of emerging research showing how much our brains are not just wired to connect with people, but built for in-person community. It’s the key driver behind things like accountability and empathy, which are critical pieces of business today. It’s because of this basic human need for physical connection that office space is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

The future of work is flexibility

The future of work is all about flexibility and community. It’s about creating a density of people, though not all of them may work for the same company. Workspaces must create places that allow people to interact and connect, as well as leveraging the best that technology has to offer. But these workspaces are becoming more diverse, hosting multiple companies instead of just a single tenant. This is why coworking has a very bright future. The human need for physical community is fundamental, and technology or culture will not eliminate that need – at least not anytime soon. While companies can employ the best talent from anywhere in the world, the distributed workforce will still require some form of human community to thrive.

“Someday, we will look back and wonder how we ever had lives, work, and schools that weren’t guided by the principles of the social brain,”

-Matthew Lieberman

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