In our new Augmented Realites 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?

Would we care? Have things gone so far that we might not even notice?

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.”

The working day could start by uploading our schedules and daily goals into virtual reality doppelgangers - representations of ourselves that we then dispatch to online meetings in our stead

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.

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 - David Ballard

“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.

There’s nothing that can really replace face-to-face interaction and connection. The things you pick up from meeting someone in person – such as body language, intonation, or the intuition that senses when someone’s upset or something’s off in a conversation – are the advantages that humans use at work that technology cannot.

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a firm that specialises in analysing emerging workplace strategies, says emotional intelligence is declining. “In part because people are on their computers instead of out on the playground.”

A steady drop in emotional intelligence (EQ) has been tracked by researchers over several years: back in 2010, a University of Michigan study found that university students show 40% less empathy than students a couple decades ago, less frequently agreeing with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

But it's developing this type of emotional intelligence that will be key to navigating jobs of the future, especially if those jobs will require being surrounded by fewer humans and more technology.

The argument against working from home

At first glance it looks like firms will save millions and stand only to gain from granting more employees flexible working. They can potentially save massive amounts of money: according to Global Workplace Analytics, each company could stand to save $11,000 per employee per year, from cost savings in areas like property, turnover and electricity bills.

But the reality of managing an entire workforce that are out-of-office could have some significant unforeseen costs. Last year, IBM reversed its position on flexible working when it called employees back to offices in-person, after stating in 2007 that 40% of its 400,000 employees no longer reported to a traditional office. Yahoo did something similar in 2013; a leaked memo to Yahoo staff was reported to suggest that some of the best decisions and insights at the firm came from "hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings in the office."

Body language, intonation, or the intuition that senses when someone’s upset or something’s off in a conversation – are the advantages that humans use at work that technology cannot

Though there isn’t yet much hard data that suggests firms will lose any money by letting a majority of its workers telecommute, the persistent fear is that these workers might end up being less efficient or loyal. After all, “you don’t want employees running their own start-ups on company time,” Ballard says.

Still, the rise of the “gig economy”  has created a surge of skilled freelancers and remote workers. Walk into any trendy, Fairtrade café in any major city and no doubt you’ll find waves of hip, tattooed professionals hunched over Macbooks and drip coffees. But monitoring this out of office workforce and keeping tabs on their productivity is tricky. Although companies like Humanyze, a start-up in Boston, have developed employee ID badges that track biometric data from human employees, like physical movements, voice tone and length of conversation which could help.

Preparing managers for the transition

More people working from home is an inevitability, if recent statistics are to believed. And the onus will be on managers to adapt to the new environment.

“Part of the problem is that we still manage people the way we did in the Industrial Revolution, like when people were working on an assembly line – if they see you, they think you’re being productive,” says Ballard of the American Psychological Association. “We need to train managers and supervisors how to better manage a remote workforce.”

How do they do that? Well, in 2015, Harvard Business Review wrote that many companies that allow telecommuting “focus too much on technology and not enough on process. This is akin to trying to fix a sports team’s performance by buying better equipment.” There needs to be emphasis on basics like communication and coordination, HBR argues.

That means that managers must still able to explain complex ideas to employees, even in a virtual setting. HBR mentions one exercise in which subject A describes an image to subject B over the phone. Then subject B must attempt to describe the description via email to subject C – and sure enough, subject C’s interpretation often ends up wonky.

It is also suggested that managers also be readily available to all employees in all time zones to build trust and efficiency.

And that's the real challenge that could develop, one that's more probable (or at least more pressing) than working alone and being surrounded by talking holograms.

An already blurred line separating work and not work is becoming increasingly blurred as working remotely becomes more popular. We might end up with the freedom to work where we want, but those technologies that grant us mobility will simultaneously chain us more to our jobs, as we become instantly and freely accessible, regardless of time or place.

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