Workplace design has been a preoccupation for creative minds for centuries. Environments assembled to house workers--from guilds to company towns-- have been obligingly engineered over the years to match whatever financial, technological and social dynamics were deemed priorities at the time.

The introduction of electric lighting and telephones in the late 19th century allowed for workplaces to be created without the need for skylights and windows and to be built away from factories and worker communities. Skyscrapers allowed workplaces to be built on expensive land in the heart of cities. Design concepts like 'the action office', created by Robert Propst in 1964 for furniture design company Herman Miller offered  the promise of unchaining workers from their desks and freeing them to move around the workplace with (productive) abandon.

Open plan design came, went, and then came back again. Cubicles and partitions gave way to 'office landscapes' that hybridized what had gone before and combined both divided and open plan spaces. The aim of this concept, which flourishes in innumerable forms today, is to encourage staff of multiple levels to sit and work together to improve in-office collaboration and communication.

Inevitably, computers and global connectivity via the internet changed everything ... again. Beyond unlocking for workers a new, global audience to share cat videos, it meant many of the remaining shackles tying businesses to specific locations and workers to specific desks were removed. Leaders could relocate their organizations to cheaper land away from centers and outsource whole functions away from their HQ countries altogether. With workers effectively becoming nomads, working from any area of a workplace (or way beyond) that suited their mood or need, workplaces began to be consciously curated to stimulate productivity and create opportunities for impromptu collaboration among teams.

The goal - to inspire innovative breakthroughs.

Enhanced, considered and increasingly, um ... playful working environments have become a veritable cornerstone of new and progressive businesses. They often represent a physical manifestation of the brand's values. Google set out "to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world" where 'casual collision' could happen between employees. While colliding anywhere near the 35-foot slide that connects floors at its campus could cause serious injury, the principle of creating spaces that are both highly functional and emotionally stimulating so that they are fertile for productivity and innovation is unarguably bearing fruit.

So what happens now?

As it's turned out, the latest in the long, long line of twists and turns that have shaped the workplace isn't one catalyzed by advancing technology but instead by a global health crisis. With an overnight exodus from offices worldwide caused by the pandemic, the workplace is experiencing the most significant upheaval in recent history and on a timeline that's hard to fathom. Pre-pandemic (March 2020), only 6% of the employed worked primarily from home and about three-quarters of workers had never worked remotely. By the end of 2021 it's estimated that a quarter of U.S. employees will work remotely at least part of the time.

Almost every major business has been forced to establish a remote-first or hybrid structure in recent months. Tech heavyweights Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter and Shopify were among a host of other major organizations to announce remote-first policies, with Adobe, SAP, Ford, Verizon and others opting for flexible, hybrid approaches, which would see employees likely to spend as much time in virtual workplaces as physical.

The troubling thing is, we haven't had decades of experience building brilliant virtual workplaces that can impact, engage and empower workforces in the same way that  physical ones do. Most organizations have had more than a year negotiating these environments and the most creative they've managed is, um ... Zoom filters?

It's a problem.

When we're working together in person, building psychologically safe teams -- those that are comfortable taking risks, speaking their minds, trying out innovative ideas without being overly fearful of failure, able to lead innovation-- is significantly easier. Because people trust and can receive validating cues from their surrounding environment. The delicate transmission of key signals, both through established company structures and seemingly innocuous human inferences and spontaneous interactions, can be promoted intentionally. It can literally be designed into an office's four walls (and of course, the walls can slide).

This key dynamic just can't instantly be replicated when people are removed from a physical office and asked to do their same jobs in a virtual space. Using a medical analogy, by moving employees out of curated office environments to virtual office environments, businesses have effectively asked their teams of researchers to move from their laboratories to empty airplane hangers--and expect them to continue to conduct successful experiments.

This digital, empty airplane hanger called the virtual workplace we're currently asking our people to work and (optimistically) flourish in, might have the technological equivalent of a roof, whiteboard and phone but don't mistake that environment for one in which  employees have a real chance of thriving.

Leaders need to consider -- and quickly-- not only how they can create functional systems able to house a virtual workforce but how they can introduce holistic digital workplaces, architected and designed for collaboration, trust and productivity.

Building trust

Only a relatively short time ago, the idea of shopping, banking, and even communicating using technology felt like a leap of faith. The systems we were being asked to trust with our personal information, our deepest secrets and our money felt adolescent, not yet secure enough, reliable enough or proven enough to have us jump in with both feet and fully enjoy the benefits they promised.

We lacked systems trust.

A lack of trust and belief in the systems that have been developed to make our lives easier naturally impede their ability to be effective. And so a similar challenge exists now as leaders are faced with the need to create new virtual workplaces, ones that employees believe in, trust and are agile enough to allow them to flex their productive and innovative muscles.

It's not a straightforward ask. Expert research in this area is light and the stakes are high. Find the right combination of tools and techniques that builds an engaged, high functioning virtual workforce and a leader is able to effectively future-proof their business. Rely on Zoom and Slack to recreate the subtle yet complex dynamics of in-person interaction and a workforce will, over time, inevitably struggle to maintain previous levels of engagement and performance. These two 'table stakes' technologies might represent important components of a strong virtual workplace but unless they're supported by a wider holistic system, they just won't cut it. It's like buying some rebar and a ventilation system and calling it an office.

A new category of experts.

As much as organizations globally are loath to miss even the slightest beat, the reality is that successfully building the next generation workplace isn't going to happen overnight. Leaders need to be realistic as they look to build a digital equivalence to something physical that took decades to refine. They must also seek help.

In my opinion, a new category of specialists able to architect advanced digital workplaces will have a significant role to play in the coming years. Most leaders wouldn't contemplate asking Joe in HR or Brenda in IT to come up with a new physical office design but, as it stands, for many, that's exactly who is being tasked with curating their virtual workplace.Just like in the physical domain, one size won't fit all in the virtual. Winning organizations will be those who find ways to skillfully combine tailored technologies and processes and whose leaders are able to evolve their own practices to meet the changed demands of virtual leadership.

In our collective eagerness to get back to business as usual, there lies the risk of building back fast over building back better. As the technology we choose and the processes we design increasingly represents who we are as leaders and what our companies hold as values, it's essential we choose carefully and build our virtual workplaces to meet the future, not mimic the past.