You might not even call it work anymore, but rather a collegial partnership with your employer, meaning that your company is committed to investing in your work-life balance and your mental health. Meetings are being held in virtual places – not as static as we know them now, but hyperrealistic in metaverse cafés or when going for a walk together wherever you wish in the world. What sounds like a sci-fi scenario could very much likely be the new normal in our future of work 20 years from now.

The current dissatisfaction with work.

But first let’s take a step back and start with the status quo. Especially in recent years, more and more people seemed to be unhappy with their job situation: a recent Gallup survey said that 18 per cent of workers in Germany had no emotional attachment to their employer, while at the same time the number of actively engaged workers is also decreasing. How did the last years, and especially the Covid-19 pandemic, contribute to this trend?

Alexandra Levit, journalist, consultant, and futurist, has written extensively about the future of work and helps individuals and organisations navigate our changing work as employers and employees: “Every time there’s an inflection point in society, or a major event that causes people to reevaluate their lives as a whole, they will take a step back and think about how much of their time they spend at work. Asking themselves: ‘Am I doing something that’s meaningful to me, that helps me achieve not just my professional goals, but my personal goals as a human?’” What’s surprising though is that New Work is not as new as it seems: the term originated in the late 1970s, challenging traditional work practices. It emphasises the importance of individual fulfillment, self-determination, and a balanced work-life relationship. The focus is therefore no longer on productivity, but on personal development, sense, and vocation.

How gen Z is revolutionisin the world of work.

And yet there are signs that this movement is now picking up new momentum. Serious conversations around the four-day work week are popping up in many European countries. The idea is simple: employees work four days a week, while their wage stays the same, and so does their workload. Recently, a large trial with more than 60 companies and 3,300 employees in the UK was hailed as extremely successful – productivity stayed up, and the results revealed a drop in the rates of stress and illness among the staff trying a shorter working week. Companies in Japan are also exploring shorter work weeks. 

And while it’s not quite the same, just this year, a proposal by South Korea to increase the number of working hours was confronted with such a huge backlash by millennials (born between 1980 and 1995) and Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2010), it had to be dismissed. So why not look for a moment at exactly those young people who make up the future workforce? Gen Z has been dubbed “the workers who want it all – for the right employer”. Felix Zeltner, entrepreneur and journalist, talked to many people that belong to Gen Z for his research: “They really do want it all. The great workplace, the success, a life where they have free time for themselves. They are striving for something that I don’t think my generation has accomplished. That makes me very optimistic.” Terms like “quiet quitting” have contributed to the discussion recently, too. Linked directly to Gen Z’s demands, it describes a mindset where employees don’t invest more effort and time into their work than required. Spread worldwide through social media, experts warn against misinterpreting this trend. It doesn’t mean that people are unmotivated and only one step away from quitting for real, but rather that they don’t want to go above and beyond for the job. Instead, they are drawing boundaries for their own good, setting priorities and avoiding overload.

To remote or not to remote.

Debating how much time we spend working is one thing, but there’s something else knowledge workers are arguing about: after having been able to work remotely for the better part of the last three years, companies all over the world are asking employees to return to the office, if only for a couple of days a week. While some people are happily answering that call, others aren’t pleased by the thought. Such as the ones that moved across the country matching their work hours to the ebb and flow of ocean waves.

It’s a heated debate for sure and there is a lot of pushback from employees who don’t want to give up their freedom, who enjoyed spending this extra time with their family and just having a more well-rounded, well-balanced life. Felix Zeltner thinks that the debate might be a bit superficial, too. “You can even see that when you open The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. You always have opinion pieces to go in either one direction or the other. While in the middle there’s a conversation that’s very much missing, which is people have always craved for fairer workplaces and more flexibility,” he says.

In the end, people just want a good day at the office – or the home office, or even their van, if you will. They want pleasant workplaces. But even though working fewer hours or working remotely might be great for our personal lives, it just doesn’t solve all the issues we have with work itself.

“In the pandemic, one thing became very real to a lot of people, and that is bad leadership. Because when you enter a virtual meeting and it is ill prepared without a structure or an agenda in place, people know that in seconds, and they are already shut off. They’re on their phones, they’re answering emails, but they don’t listen,” says Zeltner. And the same is when it comes to mismanagement and unclear communication, all these things that were already boiling in so many workplaces – in the virtual world, they are seen very clearly. Workers love remote work. But remote meetings? Not so much. And that just might give you a hint why in the past years people have become so dissatisfied with work. Yes, we were happy to be able to work from home, spending more time with our families, but why does working remotely make us dissatisfied at the same time?

Felix Zeltner knows why: “The nonverbal interaction with each other makes up about 90 per cent. When we’re talking remotely, we are missing out on most of the experience because we are not in the same room. That is why I think that the in-person meeting will always remain the most powerful and the most relevant.” Safe to say, body language is key. Without a person’s physical energy, interactions feel weird. But what if there was a way to make the virtual world more immersive and interaction more real? Would that make our work better?

The metaverse and the hybrid era.

When being asked about her personal vision for a typical workday 15 years from now, Alexandra Levit brings up a space, that is more connected to the virtual than anything else: “I think we’re going to be working mostly in the metaverse, a virtual world that is simulated so that we feel like it’s the real one. The metaverse will be a world just like ours and I think we will use them interchangeably.” Also, Felix Zeltner sees a future where virtual meetings are much more than what we are currently used to, which is seeing each other through a flat screen. According to Zeltner, we could have meetings in a little Parisian café or sitting together at a bonfire on a beach in California: “We could remember the meeting because we had an interaction over a bonfire. We would actually be sharing a space and not being two separate boxes, like on a Zoom call.” Does that mean the offices will be frequented even less than in recent years? Not necessarily, as Zeltner believes that the future of work might just combine the best of both worlds, a hybrid solution. In this both-and situation, each and every workplace has its own specific function, building a staircase of connection. You start with the virtual, then elevate the in-person experience to the next level.

No one can predict the exact future of how we will work. But one thing is clear: we are currently in a phase of great changes, maybe the biggest one since the New Work movement in the 70s. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?