As I write this Editor’s Note, I have not been in my office since last June. There is nothing there right now that needs me, and nothing I need to do my work. I can do without the mail and packages sitting on my desk. At home, I’m sitting at my desk, which has the two computers and mobile phone that allow me to connect with all my colleagues, wherever they are. At real scale, too: We just ran a fully virtual event with over 800 participants all in different locations  (not to mention Signal 2020, which welcomed thousands!). After this grand experiment of working from home is over, what will be the lasting impact? How will that change how we work? 

The challenges and sometimes personal hardships we collectively faced in the last year have also revealed our resilience and adaptability, both as people and as businesses. By necessity, we’ve marshaled more creativity and forces experimentation that we would have never seen otherwise. Digital technologies have helped us to stay connected and collaborate wherever we are, even to work on video shoots remotely, as P&G’s 9 Elements team experienced.   

Many companies are actively exploring how to plan for what’s next for their work force. Some are envisioning a fully virtual workforce, even planning to sell off real estate. Others have taken a firm stance that once offices reopen everyone is expected to return. We expect a next wave of experimentation to unfold that will try to find a balance between virtual and physical workspaces. Rapidly improving collaboration technologies will play an important role in shaping what this will look like.

No one has been looking more closely at the impact of working from home than Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, who has been closely evaluating the field for several years. We asked him how he sees our near future unfolding. His research anticipates a hybrid approach where people will continue to work from home about two days per week. It requires work groups to be in sync with their office schedules to be most productive. One significant risk is inequality. While many may want to work from home, not everyone will get to do that.

Our recent experiences with working from home also show that there are downsides to our wellbeing when it is hard to set boundaries and “leave” your office. Arianna Huffington and Deborah Majoras, P&G’s chief legal officer, have a very insightful Signal Conversation on how to deal with burnout and stress. We have also been challenged to stay connected to mentors, who serve as sources of wisdom. Entrepreneur Chip Conley explains in his Signal 2019 session that companies should treasure “modern elders” for their emotional intelligence and process knowledge. According to Chip, their wisdom will be even more important as we navigate the future.   

As we watch for how the future of work unfolds, we’re moving ahead with planning for our annual Signal conference in this unique environment, and it will be virtual again this year. The last year has been a grand experiment on a massive scale that has delivered insights about ourselves and the way we work that we would never have discovered. It will be an interesting innovation space for many years to come. 

Stan Joosten & John Battelle,

Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G