Is there anything more depressing, more hell-on-earth than the office cubicle? People stuffed into tiny boxes, a constant reminder that work is mechanical, industrial ... devoid of joy, fulfillment, connection, and meaning.

It's no surprise that the inventor of the office cubicle, Robert Propst, came to despise his own invention. "Lots of organizations are run by crass people," he lamented. "They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places." 

The rat race, with ratholes. Not a human in sight.

The human factor got forgotten in favor of economic expediency and money-saving efficiency -- because, you can imagine, with cubicles, one could easily cram more people into smaller and smaller spaces.

Learning from our past mistakes to build the future of human work

In the past 150 years, the human factor in the workplace has been all but absent. As the tale of the office cubicle illustrates, there have been plenty of instances where organizations and leaders take something that, on the surface, is good, only to end up with bad -- namely, with unhappy and unproductive people.

Fast-forward to today, and the Covid-19 pandemic has served up a huge opportunity to totally reinvent work -- what it is, where it's done, and why we do it in the first place. Specifically, it's forced us to think long and hard about things like client travel, work-life balance, commute time, and, above all, remote and hybrid working.

If there's one thing the pandemic has taught us, it's that "work" is no longer a place we go to. Some leaders get this. Others need more convincing. Either way, most are struggling to come up with a dedicated hybrid strategy for their people. Most are forgetting the human factor.

Luckily, companies are creating elegant tools, services, and systems to address the issue. As an example, a group of WeWork executives has recently launched an alternative -- Daybase -- which is designed to fill out a new work ecosystem. According to Daybase CEO Joel Steinhaus, "The world of work is a world where people are always 10 minutes away from a convenient, reliable place to get work done." 

Inventors and researchers envision a world where "the notion of work-life balance dissolves, and we are left with just 'life,'" says Steinhaus. 

So, as other tools and systems continue to emerge in the market, the consideration is first and foremost the human experience of employees.

Employees need to come together for real connection 

These are referred to as social needs.

Despite our impressive advancements in technology, Zoom meetings, emails, and chatrooms can't sufficiently substitute for the benefits of face-to-face interactions. When employees work remotely, it restricts their ability to engage in those spontaneous and effortless conversations that often happen outside of meetings (and sometimes outside of work altogether). The lack of pressure and time-constraint associated with these spur-of-the-moment interactions can allow employees to form essential human connections.  

In fact, remote workers have experienced a rise in loneliness, with 65 percent saying they feel less connected to their co-workers since switching to a home model at the start of the pandemic.

Employees need to make sense of things, with one another

These are referred to as epistemic needs.

We humans are terrible at making sense of things on our own. We need each other to derive meaning from the myriad experiences we have. The ease of socializing while working in-person can also create opportunities for employees to open up to one another. For example, two employees may learn that they both had a bad experience interacting with their manager the other day. This form of shared reality strengthens closeness because it helps individuals feel validated in their evaluation of an event.

Essentially, for employees to feel comfortable enough to confide in a co-worker, and then discover that they share the same views, can help them understand and make sense of the world around them. While these kinds of interactions can occur through a screen, the deeper connections needed to encourage self-disclosure are often absent when employees work remotely.  

Employees need humanizing experiences

The days when a paycheck and a pat on the back were enough to satisfy employees are long gone. Through years of research, which we recently replicated in our own study, we now understand the importance of a positive employee experience, for both employees and organizations. Although employee needs vary from person to person, at their core, employees are driven by a desire to do meaningful work and feel a sense of belongingness and trust.

When employees work remotely, the reduction in communication can leave them feeling isolated and disconnected from the company and its mission. Remote work can also blur the lines between work and home life, leading to an "always-on" culture that can be detrimental for employees' well-being.

Employees need to feel a sense of fairness and equity

Working from home also presents another unappreciated barrier: Not everyone has a home environment conducive for work. This is increasingly true for underrepresented minorities and people from low-income backgrounds, who tend to have a larger number of people living in their household. As a result, these workers deal with distractions, background noise, and a greater lack of privacy that many of their colleagues don't have to endure.

According to Zamir Ramirez, a production coordinator at Nickelodeon Animation, "for low-income families like my own, finding a room to work in is difficult. It can be cramped, it's usually a room that's used as storage, and there's no real sense of privacy."