The Future of Work, Part One: Work is an Ecosystem


This is the first story in a three-part series on how 2020 transformed the world of work and the ways in which design can help organizations create places—and systems—to support work as it evolves to support future needs. The first story explains how work has fundamentally changed. The second identifies the characteristics of effective work ecosystems. In the third story, we illustrate the different ways that work ecosystems can offer environments that matter most for the people who use them.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work in profound ways. Making the most of this moment means more than simply “getting back to the office.” We can rethink the environments that best support work as we reassess the purpose and impact of commercial real estate as well as necessary technology and policy implications to make work, work.

Work Is What You Do, Not Where You Do It.

In 2020, HKS researchers conducted a Work from Home (WFH) Study from which we learned that we must shift our thinking about “the work place.” In fact, there is neither a singular “work place” nor a limited duality of “work” and “home.” Working remotely during the pandemic taught us that we no longer need to work in a single place, nor do we need to work at the same time. In fact, we’ve broken through the constraints of time and place to become a truly global workforce. There are many interconnected yet disparate places where work happens, and we will be more successful if we think beyond the office to begin to design work place ecosystems.

Taking a cue from Peter Senge’s concept of systems thinking, our research revealed the need for an expanded approach to reimagining the connections between an organization’s business goals, real estate strategies, benefits, policies, amenity offerings, employee expectations and experiences. This ecosystem perspective conceives employees and employers as interdependent partners in the practice of work, renegotiating their interconnected, changing roles. 2020 has shifted the conversation from work, to work-from-home (WFH), to work-from-anywhere (WFx). Amidst this landscape of change, it’s important to note that the rush to “get back to work” should neither be a push to return to work only in offices, nor to work only from home. It’s time to think beyond boundaries of home and office to reimagine where we work best.

The Office Is One Place Within a Larger Work Place Ecosystem

Work has evolved from a place into a practice ushering in a paradigm shift. Organizations used to provide places and resources for work independent (and mostly agnostic) of understanding employee contexts (e.g., housing type, commute format, household make-up, etc.). However, COVID and WFx make the employee context a primary consideration for policy development, technology investment, and real estate planning.

Thus, work is now an interdependent ecosystem of considerations and offerings. The affordances of the organizational ecosystem become a set of benefits. Just as forward-thinking employers move from hiring for “cultural fit” to “cultural add,” the work place ecosystem acknowledges that work place must extend beyond our offices to include the technology, policy and culture to support new ways of working. The ecosystem is founded upon access, and the place where work happens should support the work that needs to be done. The work place ecosystem comprises people, policy, processes, technology and place.

Creating the Work Place Ecosystem

Embracing the “work is what we do – not where we do it” mentality enables organizations to analyze what space is needed for optimal employee productivity and satisfaction. Pair that with disrupting technology and offerings accelerated by COVID (e.g., virtual whiteboards, home delivery of office supplies, etc.), and organizations have the opportunity to rethink the intent (and subsequent design) of their office space as part of the larger work ecosystem solution. The future of work is not the virtualization of previously in-person activities. Organizations should fundamentally rethink how they work. The stopgap of directly translating in-office efforts to online was a necessary part of the abrupt transition to working from home. Yet these efforts can become a limiting crutch for organizations trying to identify and align their ecosystem elements.

Here’s how to start.

Take time to assess current organizational and employee needs. Then, focus on where you want to be in five to ten years with regard to your business offerings, organizational structure and policy. Future-casting then comparing to current state generates a gap analysis to align work ecosystems with real estate decisions. The work context is still changing. By 2030, successful organizations will be nearly unrecognizable as they shift to leverage both local and employee resources. Business strategy, commercial real estate, technology (software, hardware, infrastructure) and policy will become layered considerations that will be responsive to the organization’s characteristics and talent (both skills and resources).

Work Place Ecosystems in 2030 Will Be Layered, Proportional, and Dynamic

The future work place must do more than address the tropes of ‘casual collisions’, ‘flexibility’ and activity-based-working. It is a new paradigm of partnership between employers and employees, with contextual nuances of place. It leverages digital analytics and performance feedback to stay informed of operations and focuses work environments on experience. With online presence no longer a COVID-induced proxy for presence, organizations in 2030 will also shift towards leading rather than managing employees, with technology enabling this critical empowerment.

A varied set of spaces, times, and tools are needed for dynamic and agile ecosystems. These ecosystems adapt and change at both the organizational and individual level — every organization and its people have different needs and preferred work modes. The ecosystem model allows for that modality to occur effectively.

In the haze of the COVID crisis, this future is one to be made by those willing to make it.

Real-estate disruption was imminent, but that doesn’t mean real estate is now irrelevant. We’re finding that it is just much more focused on social capital at work — for multiple reasons, and reliant on fundamentally rethinking work — which should always have been the case.

If done smartly, a work place ecosystem’s square footage, wherever that is, will have more value than it did pre-pandemic. That is because the office doesn’t need to be all things to all employees. It can concentrate on what it needs to do well and become a space where people want to come. By introducing the work place ecosystem model, we hope to empower organizations with an expanded paradigm, beyond hybrid models, for prosperity in a post-COVID world.

In the next story of this series, “The Future of Work, Part Two,” we will illustrate the eight characteristics of effective Work Place Ecosystems.

This research continues to be informed by data collected starting March 13, 2020, of HKS employees via an online survey, senior leadership/office director interviews, and future-focused employee visioning sessions. By engaging employees in dialogue, we’re able to study satisfaction and sentiment over time and be responsive in policy development and real estate planning.

This was project was completed as a part of HKS’ Research Incubator program. This annual initiative empowers practitioners throughout the firm to invest focused time and energy into exploring topics that encourage innovation and a culture of curiosity. To learn more about this program, please contact us at [email protected]