Technology visionary Dr. Sally Eaves shares the strengths and weaknesses of the mass remote work experience as leaders anticipate some form of hybrid virtual-physical work environment into the future.
By Russ Banham
“In a historic first, half the world has been living under some form of lockdown, in what may be the single most extensive and collective act ever undertaken by humanity,” says technology visionary Dr. Sally Eaves.She’s referring to today’s mass experiment in remote work, which has proven that office-bound employees can work just as productively at their homes as they do in the physical workspace. The reason, of course, is the use of different technologies to efficiently complete work tasks, collaborate, and meet project deliverables on time.
Nevertheless, Eaves, a resident of the United Kingdom, and founder and CEO of Aspirational Futures, a nonprofit organization providing fairer access to education and job opportunities for underrepresented groups of people, says this increased productivity is coming at a cost, in feelings of social isolation, psychological stress, and fatigue.
For the past several months, Eaves has been studying the strengths and weaknesses of the mass remote work experience, in anticipation of some form of hybrid virtual-physical workspace persisting through the future. “It is important that technology used to perform work remotely does not detract from socialization,” says Eaves, “and I believe it does not have to.”In her books, Tedx Talks, and articles, Eaves has long espoused that technology must be developed for business transformation and sustainablesocial good, a mutually inclusive combination that feels particularly pertinent in the current remote work environment.
“The key lesson from the pandemic, as we prepare for further disruptions in the future, is coming together,” she explains. “It is when talent, technology, and collaboration combine that incredible advances can be achieved and at scale.”
In addition to advising companies, NGOs, and governments on the business and social dimensions of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, the cloud, and 5G, Eaves is the social impact lead for The Hult Prize 2020.
Her projects in support of ethical technology—technology that is developed and applied with purpose, does not threaten people’s security and privacy, or risk unfair or discriminatory outcomes—led to her founding Aspirational Futures in 2019. “Good business can also be social business, creating shared value,” says Eaves.
Isolation and Trust
This aspiration is especially timely. If companies had not had access to video conferencing platforms, automation software, and digitized data—all of which enable remote work—she says it is not a stretch to imagine the global economy grinding to a halt. “When talent, technology, and collaboration come together, incredible advances can be achieved and at scale.”
This togetherness is exemplified by the “solidarity of the technology sector to make a difference, bringing people closer across work, learning, and entertainment, despite the lockdowns,” she notes. It also is evident in the use of technologies like machine learning and deep learning algorithms to accelerate the research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine and patient therapies at a record pace, as well as to assist healthcare practitioners through telemedicine and AI-assisted diagnoses.
The pandemic also rallied public and private entities across the world to make a difference by combining their high-performance computing resources in support of COVID-19 research. Members of the COVID-19 HPC (High-Performance Computing) Consortium include large technology companies like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Dell Technologies, among others; federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy National Laboratories, as well as a dozen-plus universities.
“With a mobilization like this, it was no surprise that 50 potential vaccines and nearly 100 possible treatment drugs were in development by early April—an unimaginable feat in just a few weeks,” Eaves says. “Emergency initiatives and innovations like this can lay the groundwork for long-term change in business and education, healthcare, and government.”
Eaves’ energy toward what has been accomplished during the pandemic through technology is palpable in her Tedx Talks, but she is not one to gloss over technology’s imperfections, either. “There is always scope to learn and do more.”
“From a business standpoint, today’s remote work environment affirms that huge numbers of people can use technologies to complete work assignments, train, and collaborate productively,” she continues. “Working at home also offers more flexibility to be with loved ones and eliminates time-consuming commutes that steal one’s sleep. But, remote work also has its own set of detractions.”
Eaves cites the number of her friends and work colleagues, especially those not accustomed to remote working, who say they’re working harder than ever before. One reason is the replacement of a distinct block of time in the physical workspace with disordered work schedules that often extend from morning hours to bedtime. Five-minute discussions that ordinarily occurred with managers and coworkers in hallways are scheduled as a series of half-hour online conferences.
“Many people say they feel glued at home to their digital devices and screens, causing eyestrain, headaches, and Zoom fatigue,” says Eaves. “Others are coping with the loss of social interactions. As social animals, we have a fundamental desire to belong to a community, something that the physical workspace has long provided to many people’s well-being.”
Lean on Me
The theme of “belonging” has been central throughout Eaves’ career. “I’ve often said that technology is a great connector and equalizer, helping employees with demanding family responsibilities achieve better work-life balance,” she says. “People who may have felt excluded in more traditional working patterns, and indeed may have rejected a particular career path because of it, are able to cultivate feelings of belonging and ‘fitting in.’ But many people are also are finding their remote work experiences to be lonesome and distracting.”
In other words, people who are currently productive on a remote basis may become less so, as the physical and mental downsides take a toll. To obviate this possibility, technology tools need to become more personal. Using emergent technologies like AI, an employee nearing the end of a work task might receive an AI-driven prompt that says, “You’re almost done, Jane. Nice work!” In the middle of the task when stress is highest, the AI-driven tool might send a cartoon advising to “take a break, Srini.” As Eaves says, “Such personalized user experiences say `you matter.’”
To provide these experiences, she advises tech companies to hire creative artists able to capture each person’s backstory to embed it in the workflow of the tool. Other ideas include scheduling specific in-person visits to the physical workspace to collaborate with colleagues, and virtual Zoom happy hours to relax with them at the end of a productive day.
“With people longing to socialize, technology is stepping up to keep creativity in flow and spirits uplifted—the very ethos of people and technology in partnership,” Eaves says. “Although we have all been experiencing degrees of isolation, it is through collectivism that we can achieve what is meaningful.”
The cornerstone of these very human technology collaborations is trust—the founding principle in all relationships. “People are being askedto trust new forms of technology every day. Trust is the anchor that allows us to advance social progress. Truthfully, trust in tech has never mattered more.”
When asked what future business historians might conclude from the extraordinary reliance on technology to conduct business during this extended period of remote work, Eaves expresses optimism.
“COVID-19 will have profoundly changed many aspects of our way of working, learning and living and even the very nature of our society, some of which will understandably be challenging. But the pandemic will also have helped us better reflect on our relationships, including with technology, to consider what we truly value. And it will also have illustrated how much stronger we are when we lean on each other. For me, that is the most powerful takeaway and, I believe, will create a positive legacy of good.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated journalist and best-selling author.