The future of hybrid work is blended and interpersonal

Authors: Himanshu Verma, Marios Constantinides, Sailin Zhong, Abdallah El Ali
Posted: Tue, April 18, 2023 - 2:45:00

The way we work has profoundly changed. The well-known eight-hour workday within the confines of the office, and the salient boundaries between work and personal life, are now an outdated reality. For many individuals, what used to be physical and co-located has now been replaced with notions of hybrid, blended, and flexible. However, this flexibility may create turbulence between employees and employers, depending on how employees manage their workdays, productivity, and well-being. Simply put, if we are to rethink a new future of work, we need to let go of old work habits and norms and embrace a brand-new reality of hybrid and blended experiences. 

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 has significantly altered the ways we interact, socialize, work, and learn. It has forced the entire world into a prolonged social experiment, which has tested and mainstreamed what technology developers, researchers, and visionaries have been talking about for a long time: the ubiquity of working and interacting remotely. For decades, researchers and organizations have envisioned and experimented with the idea of “working from home” or “working from anywhere.” Remote work is not a new concept; we had communication tools and infrastructure to facilitate it even before the onset of the Covid pandemic.

Before Covid, an abundance of tools and technological solutions (e.g., email, Zoom, Gather.Town, Slack) enabled opportunities for distant collaborators to connect both synchronously and asynchronously. Yet these tools were never envisaged as an extended and sustained means of working, learning, or socializing in a highly interconnected world. This “pre-pandemic” social reality afforded an auxiliary and rather peripheral position to remote interactions and engagement, leaving little to no room for examining the extended remote social interactions and their short- and long-term implications for our life and well-being.

Blended Social Realities and Hybrid Arrangements
We foresee a future full of hybrid social possibilities and blended social experiences that speak to a variety of stakeholders and beneficiaries from all walks of life, from school-going children to office workers to medical personnel. Now, the next pertinent question that we have to ask ourselves is, What are these and are they the same thing? 

They are different. Hybrid social arrangements refer to the malleable distribution of a person’s social and professional lived reality—in both time and space—and the way it is positioned within the spectrum, from completely physical to completely virtual. For individuals, hybrid arrangements speak to the need for easier self-organization. For organizations, these arrangements are related to the effective governance of resources and employees’ well-being (e.g., partial work from home). Effective manifestation of hybrid social arrangements, consequently, entails designing for blended experiences, which are the essential “means to an end,” enabling individuals or collectives to meaningfully navigate their respective social and professional realities. 

Blended social realities, or “blendedness,” refers to an individual’s or group’ s practice of using digital tools and spaces for collaboration. Collaborative tasks can be mapped onto different tools and spaces with some degree of redundancy and overlap, allowing them to be effortlessly and unambiguously executed. For example, a meeting may be organized over Zoom or Social VR [1], but its agenda and discussion points may be shared over Slack. Collaborating actors may also choose to use multiple platforms for the very same task. As a summary, blendedness is a manifestation of superposed communicative and collaborative modalities and channels enabling hybridity [2]. Over time, these sociotechnical entanglements are assimilated as accepted praxis and institutional norms, in essence dissolving the boundary between tools and environments [3].

Blended working/learning/meeting experiences, as elaborated previously, encompass the dynamic and diverse ways in which the hybrid arrangements interact with digital tools and (physical or virtual) spaces to evoke a perception of social facilitation—an appropriated and rather simulated togetherness.

Over time, as existing social contracts change and technological embeddings afford new possibilities and experiences, social actors may decide to modify this mapping. Such changes may happen spontaneously and recurrently, adapting to emerging situations (e.g., a new collaborator who does not use a specific tool), technical complications (e.g., unable to share one’s screen on one platform during presentation), and organizational regulations (e.g., an organization may not allow the use of a certain platform due to contractual or accessibility reasons). Changes to these mappings may also stem from the spatial distribution of collaborating partners (i.e., whether it be colocated, distributed, or both). 

How to Design for Blended Experiences
To engage the scientific community in the debate on blendedness and contrasting it with hybridity, we organized the SensiBlend workshop at the ACM UbiComp conference in 2021 [4]. In the workshop, we sought to scrutinize the affordances of blended experiences, and raise questions relating to the specific attributes of sociotechnical experiences in the future organization of interpersonal relationships. The discussions revealed three key themes: 1) fostering serendipity in hybrid social connectedness, 2) rethinking boundaries between work and personal life, and 3) entangling “the digital” and “the spatial” worlds

Theme 1: Fostering serendipity for hybrid social connectedness 
The first theme is about the relationship between serendipity and blended experiences in virtual and physical worlds. The shift to computer-mediated communication has resulted in the explicit scheduling and organization of dedicated moments for social interactions, which can stifle creativity and serendipity. Researchers have been exploring mixed and extended reality approaches for supporting flexible video feed configuration and allowing natural proxemic interactions [10]. Social biosensing techniques, where remote/hybrid participants are able to share behavioral or physiological data with one another [5], could enhance the quality of social interactions beyond what reality is able to afford. Consequently, understanding the taxonomy of blendedness could help discover new forms of serendipity, time boundaries, and space multiplicities that go beyond the current practice of either face-to-face or videoconferencing interactions.

Theme 2: Rethinking boundaries between work and personal life
Personal and professional contexts entail that clear boundaries are being defined and maintained to foster work-life balance, contributing positively to employees’ well-being. Cho et al. [6] found that six types of boundary work shape remote workers’ placemaking practices: spatial, temporal, psychological, sensory, social, and technological. These boundaries were extensively tested and transformed during the Covid-19 pandemic. As an example, boundaries can be set up by using dedicated workspaces at home, by getting dressed up for work meetings, or by using hardware and software to enable transitions between work and life. However, the use of technology can also have negative effects such as Zoom fatigue [7], increased workplace surveillance [8], and the possibility of employees being monitored in a discriminatory and an unfair way. To ensure widespread adoption of these technologies, blended experiences must afford embodied mechanisms for individuals and groups not only to define and update their own boundaries but also to prevent any negative consequences.

Theme 3: Entangling “the digital” and “the spatial” 
Realization of blended experiences goes well beyond the mere design of technological artifacts, and extends into the realm of emergent work practices, with subsequent effects on how we organize our space and mobility practices. This requires rethinking how we design spaces, both virtual and physical, and the transition between the two. For example, the use of tools like Zoom and Gather.Town has led to the creation of digital twins, which can be used in hybrid classes and conferences. We foresee that, in the near future, the (re)design of spaces with blended experiences in mind will afford discoverability, well-being, and creativity. Simultaneously, this could go hand in hand with research on urban and built environments and their constitutive components such as interactive furniture, creating adaptive indoor atmospheres [9]. 

We argue that blendedness will be central to the entanglement of work practices, tools, and spaces, and potentially emerge as a catalyst driving the future of work. It holds the promise to augment work and its evolution by encompassing the dynamic and diverse ways in which hybrid arrangements interact with digital tools and (physical or virtual) spaces to evoke an appropriated and rather simulated togetherness. Paving the way toward a truly blended future of work entails consorted multidisciplinary endeavors across three fronts: 1) designing for serendipity, 2) improving work-life balance, and 3) weaving space and mobility with evolving work practices.

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Himanshu Verma

Himanshu Verma is an assistant professor at TU Delft, Netherlands. He is interested in examining the social dimensions of wearables, and the ways in which they can be used to understand the internal mechanisms—comprised of latent, nonverbal and transient social signals—that enable or inhibit interpersonal collaborations, particularly in hybrid and blended contexts. [email protected]
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Marios Constantinides

Marios Constantinides is a senior research scientist at Nokia Bell Labs in Cambridge, U.K. He works in the areas of human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, and responsible AI. His current research focuses on building AI-based technologies that augment people’s interactions and communication and on studying their ethical considerations. [email protected]
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Sailin Zhong

Sailin Zhong is a Ph.D. student at the Human-IST Institute, at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and a visiting student at the Responsive Environments Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her research focuses on understanding and augmenting human perception of comfort in the built environments in the work context through sensing and interaction design. [email protected]
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Abdallah El Ali

Abdallah El Ali is an HCI research scientist at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in Amsterdam within the Distributed & Interactive Systems group. He leads the research area of Affective Interactive Systems, where he focuses on ground truth acquisition techniques, emotion understanding and recognition across the reality-virtuality continuum, and affective human augmentation using physiological signals. [email protected]
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