Published: March 11, 2022

From Zoom towns to robot coworkers and the fate of office buildings, CU Boulder students, faculty, staff and alumni weigh in on the future of work. 

1. The Future of Office Spaceillustration showing employees working in bubbles connected by clear tubes

By Kelsey Simpkins

More than two years into the pandemic, many office buildings in the U.S. remain half empty as companies’ employees have settled more permanently into remote work or hybrid schedules.

What does that mean for the future of office space?

“Everything about offices is now changing to try to reflect the reality of how we’re going to keep working long term,” said Paul Chinowsky, director of the Program in Environmental Design and civil, environmental and architectural engineering professor.

We still don’t know exactly what the future holds, even if working in the office five days a week becomes a thing of the past. According to Chinowsky, that means flexibility is the name of the game. 

Building leases for offices can last five to 10 years or longer, leaving many businesses stuck with too much space or the wrong kind of space for their needs. Renovations within older buildings are expensive and could fail to serve future needs if the pendulum of where and how we work swings yet again.

This means a movement toward flexible space is quickly gaining momentum — for example, with larger meeting spaces where people can gather when they are in the office, private offices with moveable walls and shared office space with unassigned desks, a system known as “hoteling.”

Workforce employees can expect new offices to be built with flexibility in mind. Another pandemic related outcome: improved ventilation and filtration to reduce the risk of spreading illnesses such as COVID-19, the seasonal flu and the common cold. 

“We’re going to see this great experimentation of what works and what doesn’t work. And probably the only thing we know is we’re not going to see offices with permanent walls that cost a ton to take down and move,” said Chinowsky. “Everything is going to be flexible.”

2. Company Culture Looks Different in the Virtual World 

By Sarah Kuta

As more organizations move toward remote and hybrid work arrangements, company leaders are shifting the way they think about workplace climate and culture. Researchers still don’t know all the ways that working virtually affects team culture — they’re studying those types of questions right now — but they do know it will be different.

“Oftentimes, people will think automatically, ‘Oh, having a virtual team is worse, especially when I think about developing a team climate or a team culture,’ when in all actuality, it’s not worse, it just looks different — it’s different than what we’re used to,” said Christina Lacerenza, a CU Boulder assistant professor of organizational behavior in the Leeds School of Business.

For example: Though working remotely makes it harder to build interpersonal trust among team members, it can actually make it easier to build task-oriented trust, which develops from a coworker’s ability to meet deadlines and complete deliverables as expected, according to Lacerenza. 

So even though remote teams aren’t meeting for weekly happy hours or doing team-building exercises at the annual company retreat, they’re still developing trust — and, in many cases, the task-oriented trust they’re building over Slack, email and Zoom can help them be more productive. Research has found that task-based trust, in certain instances, more strongly relates to a team’s performance than interpersonal-based trust, Lacerenza said.

“We have this bias toward thinking about effective teaming as effective socializing, but that’s not all we need,” Lacerenza said. 

Managers, too, need to adapt to help foster a positive workplace culture in a virtual landscape. For starters, they need to broaden their mindset about what makes an “ideal worker,” Lacerenza said, and accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a remote or hybrid work arrangement.

And instead of a top-down, authoritarian approach, which might work just fine in the office, leaders should consider adopting a more empowering style, which means delegating authority and decision-making to employees.

“In a virtual or hybrid setting you aren’t able to micromanage — you can’t physically see your employees doing their work, so it’s harder for you as a leader to control how they get their work done. But that’s not a bad thing,” Lacerenza said. “An empowering leadership style is linked to increased commitment from employees, higher levels of creativity, higher performance and increased job satisfaction, so there are a lot of benefits.”

illustration showing tired employee during a virtual meeting3. Zoom Fatigue Is Real: How Speech and Body Language Change Over Video 

By Sarah Kuta

We’ve all done it: cringed after waving goodbye to colleagues at the end of a Zoom meeting, something we typically don’t do while walking out of in-person meetings. 

This is one of the more obvious ways that Zoom and other remote work tools have affected our body language and speech, but there are other, subtler shifts, too. Some of the changes may be helpful and even productive for collaborating with colleagues, but they can also be downright exhausting. Hello, Zoom fatigue.

When we meet with someone over video, for instance, it’s rare for both people to look at the other person’s face on the screen simultaneously, which researchers consider to be eye contact, or mutual gaze, in a virtual context. 

“It’s this subtle thing that breaks down the quality of very basic social and visual communication,” said Sidney D’Mello, a CU Boulder computer science professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. “When you interact with people on a computer, the experience is drastically diminished. In the context of Zoom, we need to be hypervigilant that everything we take for granted about face-to-face communication doesn’t apply anymore, and we really have to go out of our way to facilitate these kinds of interactions.”

Research has found that we also tend to use fewer gestures when meeting virtually (especially when everyone is looking at a document or presentation on their screen), so we have to speak up more to describe what we’re thinking and feeling. This can be both a positive and a negative.

“You have to work a lot harder and be much more conscious about what you’re communicating. Of course, the irony is that this leads to Zoom exhaustion," said D’Mello.

There are steps we can take to improve our verbal and nonverbal communication over Zoom — like leaving the camera on, not checking email or doing other tasks during the meeting and looking directly into the camera while speaking. 

But even with these tweaks, Zoom is no substitute for the ways that language and body language help us form bonds with coworkers when we interact in person, D’Mello said. Meet in person when you can, and you’ll likely feel closer to your coworkers.

“Zoom is a very small, very recent aspect of our lives, and even though it’s taken over so much of what we do, it doesn’t substitute for the thousands of years of face-to-face interaction, which is important for rapport, forming bonds and interpersonal synergies from people interacting together,” said D’Mello.

4. Rules of Engagement: Employees and Employers Navigate New Norms

By Helen Olsson

The pandemic has indelibly changed the workplace. In many cases, it has significantly shifted the balance of power between employees and employers.

“The forces that cause people to go to work — and to accept work on the terms offered — have been eroded,” said Ahmed White, author of The Last Great Strike and a law professor at CU Boulder. “It began before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic accelerated it. It has opened the door to more labor activism. People are less intimidated, more willing to take a stand for little or big things in the workplace. There’s a mindset of ‘take this job and shove it.’”

The dynamics of management have also evolved. White points out that in a traditional workplace, supervisors watch over you. When you’re working from home, they simply aren’t there. 

“That has impacted managerial authority and unsettled things,” he said. “When you go a year and a half with different and often-changing rules, you can get into a contest over what the rules are going to be.” 

Another factor, White said, is inflation. Workers who don’t get raises are losing ground. 

“When workers start perceiving that essentially their wages are being cut, it underpins a willingness to agitate for a better position,” White said. 

White puts the situation in a larger context. 

“In the last half century, the labor movement has declined while the landscape of individual employment rights like wage and hours has expanded,” he said. “But there’s been a dramatic decline in union membership.”

White doesn’t see today’s workplace activism gaining the kind of momentum seen in the 1930s and ’40s, when the union movement surged dramatically. 

“What will limit the scope of organizing is how fractured and dispersed the labor force is in this country,” White said. “Eighty years ago, workers were concentrated in one place. With the work geography of big operators like Google or Amazon, workers no longer dominate small-town workforces. That undermines solidarity among workers.” 

While White acknowledges there’s been an uptick in workplace activism and that workers are more inclined to speak out, he’s cautious about exaggerating the moment: “Is this going to go anywhere? Will it have legs? It’s hard to say.” 

illustration showing employee interacting with a robot coworker5. When a Robot Is Your Coworker 

By Daniel Strain

In the not-so-distant future, you may find yourself rubbing elbows with an unusual group of coworkers: robots.

Alessandro Roncone, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder, explained that robots have been popping up in workplaces across the country. They scan library aisles for misshelved books and deliver drugs and gauze from floor to floor in hospitals. A company called Barsys even designed a “robotic bartender” that can, according to its specs, mix up thousands of different cocktails with the press of a button.

Despite what many envisioned in the 1980s, these intelligent machines probably won’t replace human workers across the board, Roncone said.

“Instead, the robotics industry is waking up to the idea that rather than have robots replace human labor, it’s much better to augment human labor,” he said.

In other words: robotic colleagues, or “cobots,” not nemeses.

Still, researchers have a long way to go. Humans who are mostly good at not bumping into each other — picture cooks toiling side-by-side in a crowded kitchen — use bodily awareness to navigate space. Roncone and his colleagues hope to design robots with the same ability. In a recent study, the team designed a robot arm with sensors to detect when humans are getting too close, signalling it to move safely out of the way.

Morteza Lahijanian, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, added that the biggest roadblock to bringing robots to work isn’t the machines themselves: It’s us. Humans, he explained, are inherently chaotic beings. When a company called Waymo, for example, tested a fleet of self-driving vans in Arizona, some residents threw rocks at the vehicles and harassed them in other ways, according to news reports.

The challenge facing engineers, then, is to design robots that can predict human behavior in advance — then draw on their programming to keep themselves and humans safe. 

“Autonomous systems base their decisions on an understanding of the world,” Lahijanian said. “But we don’t understand humans.”

6. Preparing for Your Last Job — Now 

By Shannon Mullane

When professor Tim Kuhn considers the future of work, he offers a piece of advice: Prepare for your last job rather than the first.

For decades, workplaces have been adapting to new technologies, political and social pressures and market forces. But the COVID-19 pandemic shoved this transformation into hyperspeed, calling into question basic assumptions about how and where work can take place.

“Who knows what a post-pandemic work world will look like? I don’t think we’re going back to a place where work is assumed to be, first and foremost, in person,” said Kuhn, department chair of communication in the College of Media, Communication and Information.

The key to preparing for that last job — one that might not even exist yet — is to focus on lifelong learning, he said. That means, in part, honing transferable skills, like team leadership, group collaboration, empathy, listening and providing feedback.

“In the communication department, we’ve designed our curriculum around the idea that students practice a CRAFT,” Kuhn said. “We prepare students to be creative, relational, analytic, flexible and transformative in their work and their workplaces.”

These characteristics turn out to be key both for making work meaningful and improving our own adaptability, he said. 

On average, an individual will change jobs 12 times and have three or more careers. Employees of all ages are reevaluating what they want out of their jobs and increasingly seeking work that aligns with their personal values, he said.

“You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself,” Kuhn said. “You want to know you can take on your last job just as well as you can your first job.”

Whether working as an assistant or as a news anchor for NBC News, Savannah Sellers (Jour’13) always asks herself the same question when considering a new job opportunity: “Will this job teach me something I don’t already know?”

The strategy worked well: In 2017 she became NBC’s youngest anchor and host of Stay Tuned, a Snapchat news show — a job that didn’t exist anywhere in the industry before the show launched. 

Sellers said young people have to be adaptable as the news industry goes through a wave of rapid change. In fact, this period of change is full of opportunity: Millennials and Generation Z, those born between 1981 and 2012, are in a prime position to help organizations reach new frontiers and emerging platforms, she said.

“Don’t be scared of the changing industry,” Sellers said. “In this moment right now, [these generations] are the ones who know the future platforms. … That can be super valuable to a company that is just trying to figure it out, like we all are.”

7. Zoom Towns  

By Alexx McMillan

“They treat it like their personal office. They order black coffee, don’t tip and sit there for the entire time we’re open.” 

Livia Follet (Engl’23) of Salida, Colorado, has worked at her local coffee shop, Cafe Dawn, since she was 15. Outside of peak tourist season, their customers used to be mostly locals. However, around the spring of 2020, she noticed a slew of new faces  — who she described as “tech bros” — frequenting the cafe. 

“We finally just stopped offering the internet,” she said. 

Follet’s situation is a part of a bigger phenomenon occurring in mountain towns across the country. The rise of remote work has resulted in some workers — often those who own second homes — moving to areas previously considered resort destinations, creating so-called Zoom towns.

“Mountain towns are doing well, especially their real estate markets,” said Stephen Billings, a professor of real estate at CU Boulder.

However, this boom in real estate may come at a cost to locals. As prices and the cost of living increase, affordable housing becomes a concern, and towns struggle to find service workers and provide amenities, Billings said.

Follet has witnessed it firsthand: “You try to walk into businesses and they’ll be closed that day because there is no one to work.” 

To Billings, this is illustrative of the concept of spatial inequality — the increasing disparity between expensive places and places that are left behind. 

“The recent trend in Zoom towns marks an acceleration of this story,” he said. “Wealthy workers leave cities like Denver, creating less economic diversity and pushing people out of mountain towns, which have a fixed amount of housing.” 

Whether or not this trend will continue, Billings said, is uncertain: “It’s unclear if people can work remotely long term.” 

As for Follet, she hopes it slows down.

“It’s kind of sad to see people come in and take ownership over a place where you were raised, that you have such a connection to, and change it without any knowledge of how to take care of it,” she said. “They see it as somewhere fun to move to, a commodity maybe, not their home. It makes it harder for people who do want to work and raise their kids here to actually live here.” 

illustration showing employees interacting from their homes in a virtual environment8. Skill-Building in Higher Education Translates Across Degrees, Majors

By Emily Heninger

In the modern workplace, foundational skills — like communication, teamwork and creativity — are highly valued. Increasingly, your specific degree or major might not matter as much as it once did.

“Employers have always been looking for skills, but there’s more recognition that they can be gained from a number of different degrees,” said Alaina Nickerson, who oversees the Comprehensive Career Team for CU Career Services.

At CU Boulder, programs like Skills for Success are teaching students how to identify, build and articulate those skills.

“There is a greater demand now than in recent years for learning on-demand skills quickly, because jobs are changing so much — especially with automation and how rapidly workplace priorities changed during the pandemic,” said Kristi Wasson (MComm’07), assistant director of career populations and strategy for Career Services.

Fulbright grantee Olivia Wittenberg (IntAf, Span’20) credits the foundational skills she learned at CU for her professional success to date.

“CU taught me how to think critically about the world, which has allowed me to develop what I think about the world,” said Wittenberg. “Although this may not be a concrete skill like knowing a language or a computer program, I think it's been the common denominator in securing the opportunities I have post-graduation.”

According to a long-running UCLA study of first-year college students, the ability to get a better job after graduation is one of the top reasons students consistently cite for going to college. Nickerson believes fulfilling that promise — and providing students with the foundational skills to professionally succeed — are essential to maintaining the value and integrity of higher education.

“If students believe that higher education is offering them the ability to further their career prospects, then we need to offer that to them,” she said. “It’s incredibly important to deliver on the return on investment that families and students are investing in.”

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Illustrations by Brian Rea