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Workplace

By E. Glen Weyl, Audrey Tang and ⿻ Community

Workplace

     More than a billion people worldwide work outside their homes in formal organizations with at least a few other people. These "workplaces" produce about 70% of global output and are the first thing most people think of when they hear "economy". If Plurality is to help re-imagine the economy, it must restructure formal work, which we turn to in this chapter.

     The advances we discuss, which are just a sampling of potential implications of plurality in the workplace, cover strengthening remote teams, designing effective corporate campuses, improving communication, accessing talent more inclusively and supporting more effective provision of common corporate infrastructure and more dynamic adaptation to changing industries. We estimate that the first four of these components could increase global gross domestic product by approximately 10% in total and that the last might permanently increase the GDP growth rate by half a percentage point a year.[1]

Strong remote teams

     The Covid-19 pandemic transformed the world of work, bringing changes expected for decades to fruition in a year. A leading study by Barreto et al., for example, found that from work from home rose from 5% of the American workforce to a high above 60%.[2] Perhaps the most extreme manifestation has been the rise of so-called "digital nomads", who have harnessed the increasing opportunity for remote work to travel continuously and work a variety of remote jobs as encouraged by programs like Sardinia regional program for digital nomads and Estonia and Taiwan's e-citizenship and gold cards respectively, one author of this book holds. While there has been substantial return to physical work since the end of the pandemic, at least a part of the change appears here to stay; Barreto et al. find that after the pandemic, workers on average want to work about half the week from home and believe their productivity is similar or better in that setting. While some studies have found some evidence of mildly reduced productivity, these effects do not seem large enough to overcome the persistent demands for hybrid work styles.

     Yet there is little question that remote work has real downsides. Some of these, such as ensuring work-life balance, avoiding distractions and unhealthy at-home working conditions, are not easily addressed through remote collaboration tools. But many others are: lack of organic interactions with colleagues, missing opportunities for feedback or to form deeper personal connections with colleagues, etc. While Plurality can be used to address most of these, we will focus on one in particular: the building of strong and deeply trusting teams.

     In-person teams often engage in a variety of joint learnings or other not-directly-productive activities to build team trust, connection and spirit. These range from casual lunches to various kinds of extreme team sports, such as "trust falls", simulated military exercises, ropes courses, etc. What nearly all these have in common is that they create a shared activity that benefits from and thus helps develop trust among members, in a similar manner to the way we discussed shared military service developing strong and lasting cooperative bonds in the "Post-Symbolic Communication" chapter.

     Obviously most such activities currently rely heavily on being in person, thus many hybrid and fully remote teams, especially those that have many members who started as remote employees, miss the team-building benefits created by such activities or can achieve them only at considerable travel expense. Remote shared reality offers significant potential for overcoming this challenge. Lunches among sufficiently realistic avatars, ones reflecting detailed facial expressions for example, may soon help bring the rich connections achieved in the office within the reach of remote teams. While it would seem impossible to achieve the vivid connections of parties or extreme sports in remote shared reality, there is increasingly strong evidence that real experiences of fear and trust can develop in sufficiently realistic simulated environments. As "e-sports" begin to rival the popularity and, in the right remote shared reality environments, physical intensity of in-person physical sports, the benefits of "campus athletics" may increasingly make their way to remote work.

     Yet even more promising than the recreation at a distance of the approaches of in-person teams is the harnessing of digital tools to create even deeper connections than are possible without digital aids. The simplest examples would be extensions to extreme sports or military scenarios that would be unsafe or unreasonably costly to simulate in-person. But these are only the beginning; eventually, direct neural interfaces may allow colleagues to remotely share a level of intimate empathy that will be bounded primarily by professional propriety, rather than by the barriers of physical distance.

Designing inclusive campuses

     Much work, especially white collar work, is physically localized to significant extents in large "corporate campuses". While many of the functions these campuses bring together are fairly separate or organizationally distant, broad co-location is often a goal because of the chance intersections it is thought to allow that may stimulate work across divisions of the company. Such "agglomeration" effects have been shown by a large economics literature to be an important source of the economic benefit of cities. A core role of corporate campuses is to capture these benefits within a company.

     Achieving this goal, however, requires careful design. Excessive segregation by organization and discipline or focus on core work undermines the benefit of agglomerative spontaneity. Excessive fragmentation by organization and discipline undermines productivity. Different elements of campus (walkways, dining facilities, offices, shared space, etc.) play diverse roles in fostering direct work and spontaneous connections. The potential design space of campuses is obviously vast and thus necessarily greatly under-explored. This exploration is made far more difficult by the fact that it is extremely expensive to build and put a company in a campus and usually other features of the relevant companies differ far more than their campus design. It is thus little surprise that there is no standard best campus design; campuses differ radically in their design, a leading exemplar being Apple's torus spaceship. Anything that could reduce the costs of exploration could significant improve the quality.

     A natural way to make such experiments dramatically easier is to create immersive shared reality campuses in which employees can explore potential configuration and attend virtual meetings. These configurations can be prototyped far more rapidly and flexibly than building a physical campus, allowing for a range of exploration in the course of time employees spend attending virtual meetings. Based on feedback, employees can even help redesign the space and iterate on the layout. If a potential design seems to be achieving its goals reasonably well and fits a potential site well, it could then be "printed" through a more standard engineering and construction process. In short, these tools could make the design of physical space much more like what word processing and collaborative documents have made writing: a process that is able to engage in broad experimentation and accumulate diverse feedback before it has to been greatly scaled.

Difficult conversations

     Meetings are a central part of white collar work, consuming on average approximately a quarter of working time. Yet for all the time they take up, perhaps the greater cost is the meetings that do not happen because of how burdensome they are. Business leaders frequently misunderstand the needs of their customers, the challenges within their teams and the duplication of work because meeting with the relevant stakeholders would take too long. To make matters worse, many meetings are quite ineffective, as dominant personalities carry on and the wisdom of those who are less empowered or assertive is lost. Anything that could significantly speed meetings and increase their quality could transform organizational productivity.

     While meetings have variety of goals and structures, perhaps the most common type is an attempt to share a variety of perspectives on a common project to achieve alignment and assignment of responsibilities. Such meetings are closely connected to the deliberative conversations we highlighted in our chapter on "Deliberation". An important reason why, despite the rise of asynchronous communication via services like Slack, Teams and Trello synchronous meetings remain so prevalent is that asychronous dialogs often suffer from the same lack of thoughtful time and attention management that are necessary to make synchronous meetings successful. Approaches like pol.is, Remesh, All Our Ideas and their increasingly sophisticated LLM-based extensions promise to significantly improve this, making it increasingly possible to have respectful, inclusive and informative asynchronous conversations that include many more stakeholders.

     Beyond office politics, national politics are also increasingly entering and dividing workplaces, leading some executives to take extreme measures such as banning political discussions at work.[3] A potential alternative to such stringent restrictions, which may suppress but not resolve tensions and undermine employee morale, might be to build channels such as the above to allow thoughtful and inclusive discussions of social issues, especially those relevant to corporate policies, to take place respectfully and at scale. Overall, these technologies promise to make workplaces more efficient, engaging, consensual and harmonious, providing the tools to help achieve the cultural goals many executives strive for.

Plural hiring

     Many businesses and roles have "standard career paths", recruiting primarily graduates from a limited number of degree programs, set of professional backgrounds/experiences, etc. While these businesses often regret that they thereby exclude many talented and diverse candidates, recruiting from backgrounds that have lower "hit rates" is often very costly: it would require them to learn to identify promising resumés from a broader range of settings, verify accomplishments and credentials outside of typical channels, send representatives traveling more and further, understand unfamiliar dimensions of diversity and train those who may be less prepared for the culture of their organization. The rigidity created by this hiring process is a leading reason so many are forced into the narrow paths of learning we highlighted in the previous chapter.

     The capabilities of social identity systems, modern large language models (LLMs) remote shared reality technologies may help in addressing many of these challenges. Network-based verification systems, as we described in the "Identity and Personhood" chapter can allow the secure verification of a diversity of credentials and accomplishments across large gulf of social distance rapidly and cheaply. LLMs, properly trained and fine-tuned, should soon allow the "translation" of resumés not just across languages, but across diverse social contexts, helping hiring managers understand "equivalent" qualifications across a range of settings and a diversity of paths that could support performance in a role. They can similarly help applicants better understand the range of roles their background may qualify them for.

     They also may be able to provide a richer sense of the range of diversity spanned by a company's customer base that it would be helpful to represent among employees to allow them to empathize and connect with customers, and allow human resources department to optimize for diversity in more sophisticated, intersectional ways rather than simply seeking to match population proportions in salient categories. Remote shared reality experiences can help them hold interactive recruiting events in a wider range of venues at lower cost and allow applicants a deeper sense of the work environment. They can also accelerate the acculturation and on boarding processes much as we described in the previous chapter. In short, these tools can together allow for a future of human resources that reaches a far wider range of talent and allows opportunities for everyone to shine as the unique intersectional contributor they are.

Supporting intrapreneurship

     Most formal work is organized hierarchically, according to an "organizational chart", with authority flowing from a chief executive down through a dividing groups of managers to workers. Especially in large organizations, those managed by different high-level managers come to form different organizations within the parent, each with their own cultures, goals and visions. While these internal distinctions are usually viewed as important to ensuring accountability, they are also often viewed as a barrier to organizational cooperation and dynamism, potentially undermining the collaborations needed to provide common infrastructure and meet the needs ("disruptions") of changing political, economic, social and technological environments. For example, the organization in which one of us works, Microsoft, has sometimes been satirized as illustrated in Figure X for its internal organization conflicts and, under the leadership of its current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella has worked to forge a "One Microsoft" culture to overcome this.

FIGURE HERE

     While much of this has been demonstrated through exemplars of such cooperation and inspirational leadership, Nadella has also helped establish some institutions intended to help achieve the organizational equivalent of the "solidarity and dynamism" we have discussed above. In particular, one of us had the honor to serve in the Office of Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) Kevin Scott, whose duties included coordinating cross-company investments that no one organization would find it in their interest to take on and stimulating "intrapreneurship", the building of new business lines often drawing on expertise across existing organizations.

     While OCTO achieved much (including incubating the now well-known relationship with OpenAI) during the author's time there, a persistent challenge was harnessing a small staff that was necessarily much less informed than those "on the ground" about business needs and opportunities to decide on major investments and incubations intended to bring cross-cutting benefits. This was particularly difficult because the intention was for many of these investments to accrue not directly to the bottom line of the internal start-up, but to other business lines, and because of this and structure of jobs at Microsoft, the typical use of large incentives for eventual success to compensate the likelihood of failure are hard to apply. Various organizations navigate this challenge in different ways; for example Google (now Alphabet) has traditionally given employees 20% of their time free to pursue passion projects for the organization, outside their primary organizational role. Yet this suffers the obvious challenge that individuals may pursue idiosyncratic projects that at worst may not be aligned to the broader mission and at best usually fail to scale as they do not bring enough people together to cooperate on an ambitious project.

     A natural alternative to the extremes of centralized management and uncoordinated individual initiative would be to harness plural conversational and funding tools. An organization like OCTO could have a much larger budget, but much less discretion, providing match-making and cross-pollination services and matching funds for investments with support from many organizations. It could use data from or posting within internal communication platforms to identify cross-organizational clusters of interests, host free and fun events to build connections across these organizations and then offer matching funds if a diversity of organizations are willing to invest employee time or other resources in supporting a shared investment or incubation. Compared to the "20% time model", this would offer much more "free time" to pursue projects that have genuine cross-organizational support, but that one's direct reporting chain sees as tangential, and less support for purely idiosyncratic interests. As such, it would empower employees to coordinate investments among themselves that could transform the business overall, allowing agility to avoid disruption.

     Putting these together, we can imagine a future where remote teams can form the same strong bonds as in-person teams, where in-person teams can co-design inclusive workplaces that foster spontaneous connections while maintaining focus, where meetings are far more efficient and inclusive even when asynchronous, where more a far wider range of talent can be placed into leading roles, creating a more inclusive and representative workplace and where employees can easily collaborate across divisions and with corporate support to overcome build the common infrastructure and new ventures their employer needs to survive and thrive in a dynamic business environment. In short, it is not hard to see a future of truly plural workplaces, embracing and harnessing collaboration across a wide range of internal end external diversity to achieve a more productive and inclusive future.


  1. If, as noted in the chapter, about 50% of formal sector work will be remote and, as in this study, if team-building exercises increase team performance by about 25% (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220030881_Does_Team_Building_Work), if this applies to about half of formal sector work and if about half the benefit goes into cost, we should expect a gain of about 2% of GDP from improved remote team-building. If agglomeration benefits are about 12% for work facilities (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/653714?casa_token=-ZDUGej5nB4AAAAA:UiEMkS_A8uBJgzBkH2TTsyeNQUc7SndHpUEM0ojEuhwbG-Lmlov4lPLdQBwUacG3bLYIZMi1TxY) and this applies again to half of formal sector work and can be improved by 50%, again we get 2% of GDP. If meetings are 25% of formal sector work time and can be improved by 25%, this is about 4% of GDP. Standard economic estimates of the costs of labor search and matching are about 4% of GPD, similar to the cost spent on human resources; if mitigated by 50% this would raise GDP by 2% (not to mention significantly dampen the cost of business cycle unemployment). Finally, most GDP growth (of roughly 2-3% annually globally) has been traced by economists to technological advance through the research and development of new products, which is now about 80% in the private sector according to the figures we discussed in the introduction. If the efficiency of this could be increased by a quarter through more flexible intrapreneurship, this could raise global GDP growth annually by half a percent. ↩︎

  2. Barreto Bloom and Davis paper ↩︎

  3. Coinbase reference. ↩︎