Almost All Work Will be Instrumentally and Technologically Augmented.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places” Ernest Hemingway.

The Third Connected Age

Pre-Pandemic work was already being widely dispersed over the past decade as technology increasingly advanced machines and communication devices such as computers, audio VPAs, smartphones, and even connected vehicles. As tech further sophisticates, it increasingly enables us to work away from the office more and more. Today, The Third Connected Age ( AI, 5G, Voice/Augmented Reality, and Cloud Computing) will continue to dramatically scale, distribute and disperse this trend, as seen in today’s virtual workspaces.

Post-Pandemic, The Third Connected Age Poses A Corporate EXISTENTIAL Conundrum

As we slowly migrate back into physical office spaces, will we sublet our Zoom home offices or pack them up and bring them along to the old dingy cubicles of our former work lives?

Many believe that virtual conference technologies like Zoom will continue to be the primary means of communication, even in physical spaces, replacing human-to-human communications. This leaves our newly re-inhabited office spaces void of human voice, personal connection, creativity, and collaboration. Will this work? Will it enhance the corporate culture? Or, do we resign these dated methods and ideologies of what an office used to look like and walk away from the Culligan water coolers and cubicles of the past?

We see this topic trend across various news outlets, industry trades, LinkedIn, and social media. Physical spaces are at war with virtual spaces and have launched a workplace renaissance, nothing like the world has witnessed before. The future of work has enlightened workers or disenchanted them so greatly that some have completely walked away from their careers, mostly to reinvent themselves realizing that work is less important than family, and has diffused their personal passions over time that have been waiting decades to be fulfilled.

For those that embrace the technological future of work, virtual office spaces have reconfigured the way in which we interact with co-workers and clients. We continue to hear narratives about more intimate relationships made possible by virtual conference technology, which might seem counterintuitive but makes sense when workers have the ability to catch a glimpse of people’s homes, pets, children, and significant others, and even what people look like outside of the office. The infamous Mark Zuckerberg hoody has become more trendy than ever.

These tech enlightened employees (and even some large corporations) agree that physical office spaces are now dated. Rent and commuting are unnecessary when technology has proven that work can be performed almost anywhere via virtual office spaces. Some companies even claim that employee-to-employee relationships have been strengthened and personal communications more frequent. Managers and CEOs are ecstatic that corporate culture is thriving and re-invented, all made possible through technology and sadly a global pandemic to boot.

The Corporate Social Dilemma

To the detriment of those that need much-needed breaks from their screen, video conferencing has enabled meeting-heavy companies the ability to schedule even more meetings, which have become stare-a-thons with employees gathered around simultaneously staring at one another and themselves, usually for more than eight hours per day. To add insult to injury, we now have created corporate cultures where grown adults utilize facial filters and backgrounds to make them appear more attractive or even in a location more fun than their colleagues. This is the adult version of The Social Dilemma, where our self-esteem and mental health have been compromised by mandated technology.

Environmental Cueing

Today, we see employees redesigning and reconfiguring their home office space by creating a unique and fun environment for each video conference. As we continue to do this more often, workers have become tired and mentally exhausted to the point that they have lost the inclination to reinvent themselves for every single meeting and even interview. (Once again, reinsert the infamous hoody). Video calls have become no different than the ritualistic sequence before going to sleep: you brush your teeth, and if you forget, it feels funny, and you probably will get up to brush your teeth again. There are few or no specific cues tied to working; it tends to be all the same, and it is no wonder that people feel less energized and focused.

Hoody Zoom Culture

It is important not to forget that learning and recall are state-dependent to where the information was acquired. The Zoom environment where we work or even attend class is the same environment where we socialize, game, watch videos, message, surf the net, and participate in social media. For most, there has been no habit developed for the new reality of work-from-home. The environment must be set up to do this, so the habit state is consistently paired with environmental, emotional, social, and kinesthetic cues. The environment needs to be reproducible in many locations, situations, and mental states as possible.

A similar concept is used in the treatment of insomnia by making the bedroom the only room to be associated with sleep or intimacy. All other activities, like arguing with your partner, eating, watching television, checking email, texting, or social media, are done at other locations. Given enough time, the cues in the bedroom become the conditioned triggers for sleep and pleasure.

Analyzing Ourselves, Hyperfocused and Hypercritical

It’s impossible to avoid hyper-focusing on our Zoom faces. When we look in a mirror, we tend to scan for flaws and look for what we can change to make ourselves look more attractive, thinner, or more perfect. We tend to zero in on the specific features we dislike rather than seeing ourselves as a living, breathing whole — or heaven forbid — give ourselves credit for the parts we do like. The more we stare and compare to some imagined and unattainable ideal, the more we amplify our self-consciousness, leaving us feeling ‘less than’ from the moment we join a call. The Child Mind Institute reported that the fallout from social media’s unrealistic standards becomes more dangerous once kids reach college, where they face higher stakes, harder work, and a largely parent-free environment. The pressure to look perfect to impress new peers and friends can be even greater, leading to severe mental health issues. The same level of power that social media harnesses to negatively impact and even destroy our children's self-esteem and mental health is now mirroring and manifesting itself into our everyday career lives and personalities through virtual conference platforms.

The New Strange

Whether we like it or not, we are not going back to how things were pre-pandemic. Instead, as explained earlier, we will be reinventing ourselves and retooling many of the things we did before. This applies to how we work, interact, where we go, and what we do.

These insights come from Rishad Tobaccowala, acclaimed author of “The Great Re-invention” and former chief growth officer at Publicis. He envisions and predicts that the future will involve an “unbundled workplace,” where people will create a mixed schedule of visiting the “museum” (another term Rishad coined to describe work headquarters as we used to know it) and gather together in co-working spaces while continuing to get the job done at home. Schedules will vary, technology will assist, and the typical 9-to-5 will become a thing of the distant past. He calls this societal shift “The New Strange,” which has emerged due to the significant social, financial, emotional, and health crisis of the past 18 months. Because of what we all went through, Rishad notes that there will never be a “new normal.” People are much different than before, impacted directly by events and experiences felt around the world.

And so, we have now entered the era of this “New Strange.” This pivotal time in history, much like the post-Great Recession era, is helping to identify the necessity for new innovation and technology.

The Third Connected Age: Technology and Innovation

Already Society has been greatly impacted by the First Connected Age, where we connected to discover Search and began to transact via E-commerce. During The Second Connected Age, we connected to each other through Social Media and in real-time through mobile devices.

We have now entered the Third Connected Age, where we will enjoy four new types of connections as data connects to data and writes software (AI). All our devices are connected to Supercomputers (Cloud), with much faster connections (5G) and new interfaces to connect (Voice/AR/VR).

The age we are now entering will be interesting, in what will become available to us as individuals. AI capability is doubling every 6 months vs. the old Moore’s law of 18 months. However, it is challenging on a societal level, meaning that anything a human does, machines might be able to do better and faster.

We’re All In This Together

This year, Microsoft, for one, is not sitting idly. They recently introduced “Together Mode,” which uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background, making it feel like you’re sitting in the same room with everyone else in the meeting. It is supposed to allow participants to pick up on faces, body language, and other non-verbal cues.

The new Together Mode that Microsoft added to “Teams” a few months back is an attempt to make those video meetings less tiring and more productive, using some simple tricks that factor in the way the human brain works and the way we react to other people.

Marissa Salazar, Microsoft’s Product Marketing Manager, told TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois that you’d notice the way that we’re looking at each other is obviously very different than something we’re used to. Not only are we out of the grid, but we’re looking at this ‘mirror image’ of our team.” Microsoft’s research suggests that, based on monitoring brain activity, participants using “Together Mode” exerted less mental effort than in the traditional grid mode, thus reducing meeting fatigue.

Currently, the shared space is an auditorium, but additional views are expected to be available soon, including a coffee shop for smaller meetings. Famed VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, who worked with Microsoft on the new tools, predicts: “We’ll see people make the space their own, just like they do the workplace, for the type of social dynamics that may exist. I think where this is headed offers a lot more flexibility and customization.”

So, Can “Together Mode” Help Erradicate Zoom Fatigue?

“Together Mode” also helps us focus on people’s faces and body language, often lost during video conferences. You’ll be able to choose from different views, like sitting in an auditorium or at a conference table. It will also help cut down on video meeting fatigue by making video meetings feel more like in-person ones, Microsoft said in a July blog post announcing the feature.

Additionally, there’s one Microsoft Teams feature that may give the video chat service an edge over your many zany Zoom backgrounds. With Together Mode, Teams uses AI to digitally place you in a shared background with up to 49 of your coworkers — so it looks and feels more like you’re sitting in the same room with them while meeting remotely, similar to a VR experience.

This technology solves the problem of feeling separate. Instead, it creates a feeling of “togetherness “while separate. Even if the Zooms of the world work perfectly, you still don’t feel as if you’re in the same room as your co-workers. This makes us slightly anxious and meetings more tiresome, making it harder to concentrate, and sadly leads to misunderstandings or less polite behavior.

To expound on this idea, Mary Czererwinsky, a cognitive psychologist at Microsoft, finds that the most exciting aspect of Microsoft’s AI-driven Together mode is that it captures to some degree people’s interaction with one another and points out how we live in a world of complex visual clues that do not come across in traditional video conferences.

The Problem Associated With The Brady Bunch Effect

Lanier believes that our brain wants to know where other people are: so subconsciously it’s scanning around and keeping track of what everybody’s intent seems to be and what their state of attention is or if they’re trying to get your attention, or if they’re reacting to you or someone else and so on.”

The grid layout of most video-conferencing apps makes that impossible, no matter how many little squares there are on-screen, and because the camera is up, down, at the side, or anywhere but behind the screen you’re looking at, the brain also can’t work out what other people are paying attention to by noticing where they’re looking. “The human brain has specialized areas for keeping track of where stuff is in the environment but in particular, where people are in the environment. We evolved to be very good at tracking other humans and assessing very quickly what’s going on with them.”

“When we speak to one another, we’re not just exchanging words, we’re exchanging glances and gestures and subtle changes of head position and subtle eye movement, even changes in skin tone; these are all things that we know measurably are part of communication, although they’re usually subconscious. For those things to work, you have to understand your spatial relationship to other people, or you won’t know who they’re reacting to.”

“Together Mode no longer places people in boxes, and you’re no longer separated by a barrier. If I point at someone, you can tell who I’m pointing at. It creates a different atmosphere: it creates a sense of a shared place, it creates a sense of shared goals, and a shared stake,” says Lanier.

Additionally, Together Mode uses a surprisingly simple bit of what Lanier calls ‘scientific trickery.’ Teams cut you out of the video stream the same way it does to apply a virtual background, but when it drops the cutouts into the group background, it also flips them, so you’re seeing yourself and everyone else as if they were in a mirror.

As a result, Lanier says, your brain doesn’t notice as much when people aren’t looking at you, so you don’t feel ignored in the same way. “By creating the virtual mirror, we retain the spatial awareness the brain needs for social contact, but we remove the specific person-to-person vector, where the brain can detect errors easily. We’re keeping the part that the brain needs, but then throwing out the part that we can’t do with software alone.”

The virtual environment is far from perfect, but good enough that it changes behavior, Lanier says: “People notice how they appear in the room, and they start to subconsciously perform in such a way that their responses and their cues are correct and honest for the other people around them. People being aware of how they appear to others in-depth strengthens this web of social-spatial interpersonal awareness. It’s good cognitively, it’s good emotionally, and it’s good practically.”

The way people behave in meetings changes too, Lanier says. “Do people tend to keep your cameras on more when they’re in this? They do. Do they tend to look at others more than themselves? They do, which is amazing. Do they tend to spend less time negotiating who’s talking? They do. Do they remember what was said better? They do. Do they remember who was present in a large meeting better after a few days? They do. We’re seeing measurable improvements in meeting efficacy.”

Then, Metaverse.

Possibly, The Future Of Work. Only Time Will Tell.

The “metaverse” for those who don’t know is a virtual world accessed through special Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. The idea is to create a kind of next-level internet that is superimposed on our physical world. People connected to the metaverse exist in our physical world like everyone else but can see and interact with things others cannot. Think about the matrix or the Star Trek Holodeck or FortniteEsque Brandscapes from Ready Player One.

The metaverse, in particular, is hardly an undiscovered theme; it spawned a thousand think-pieces and eye-rolls in 2020 alone. Talk of “The Third Platform” has been around since before Snow Crash in 1992. But the abundant hype also means that tech monoliths like Facebook are more likely to aggressively compete to be the first to build it (update-it’s happened).

Participation in the metaverse will involve the collection of unprecedented amounts and types of personal data. Today, smartphone apps and websites allow companies to understand how individuals move around the web or navigate an app. Today, in the metaverse, organizations like Facebook will be able to collect information about individuals’ physiological responses, movements, and potentially even brainwave patterns, thereby gauging a much deeper understanding of their customers’ thought processes and behaviors.

Users participating in the metaverse will also be “logged in” for extended amounts of time. This will mean that behavior patterns will be continually monitored, enabling the metaverse and advertisers participating in the Metaverse to understand how best to service the users in an incredibly targeted way.

Zuckerberg, Of Course. Gamifying Our Careers.

Enter “Horizon Workrooms” for Virtual Offices. It’s Here To Stay. Zoom Is Out.

How Will It Work, According To Mark Zuckerberg

Quotes

-With “Horizon Workrooms,” you can enter and experience a virtual reality office as personally designed avatars. In the workroom, you can see your computer screen and keyboard, interact with your co-workers, brainstorm, and give presentations.

-It basically gives you the opportunity to, you know, sit around a table with people and work, and brainstorm and whiteboard ideas. For people who can’t be there through virtual reality, they could just video conference in. So you can include everyone. But it’s this pretty amazing experience where, you know, you feel like you’re really right there with your colleagues.

-Workers can design their avatars’ looks and use hand gestures, which will appear in the virtual room.

-To get started inside “Horizon Workrooms,” you’ll need to buy an Oculus VR headset. The “Quest 2” currently starts at $299. Once you have the headset, you can download the free “Horizon Workrooms” app, which will allow you to join your own virtual workspace. You can invite other users with an Oculus device into the conference room. People without Oculus equipment can still join the room through a conference call link that displays them as a video call inside the room instead of an avatar.

-There’s an important place for offices for people to come together (HERE WE GO AGAIN), but I also think that there’s an important place for people who may not want to move to an expensive city, may want to stay with their family or where they grew up, but also wanna get access to opportunities that may maybe historically would have only been in New York or L.A. or one of these bigger cities.”

-So, you know, all these tools, whether it’s video conferencing, or, you know, eventually being able to collaborate better in the metaverse, in products like Workrooms, is what we built here. I think this is all just part of the progression of giving people more freedom to live where they want.

More about metaverse in my next article.

OR you can weigh in. All comments and thoughts are welcome.

Digital Media Change Agent | Digital Philanthropist | Digital Design Ethicist | Humane Technology Advocate