The Future of Work: What We Learned from our Research Last Year

By James Glasnapp, PARC Senior Research Staff and Cristina Gaitán, PARC UX Designer and Researcher

The “office of the future”

The groundwork for networked personal computing over the last several decades was founded by PARC’s 1970s-era vision of the “office of the future.” Here we are, nearly 50 years later, with a completely new wave of opportunities that add dimensionality to what was possible before.

New PARC research has led us to a deeper understanding of the evidence of significant change visible in work design, workplace design, and worker interactions. We spent 2017 grounding ourselves in what work is today and thinking about what work could be tomorrow, conducting research into the future of work that combined literature review, interviews, and field studies.

Our working theory was that the world of large, stable, efficiency-seeking corporations is disappearing, replaced by one in which organizations pay for access to technology rather than ownership. Business is moving toward a Hollywood model of temporary team formation and ever-shorter strategy cycles. In this new digital age, the transaction cost theory of the firm [1] is breaking down. The economic threshold for needing to collect people physically in order to leverage expensive fixed assets is higher than ever. Productivity is now a basic competitive requirement; the new workplace effectiveness frontier is agility.

Building on this theory, we gained some key insights about the future of work from our research.

Key insights from this year

For creativity and innovation to thrive, people must come together and connect in meaningful ways. We already knew that agility over efficiency is important, but this research showed that physical space will be important to the future of work, too. Our research led to a deeper understanding of how the physical workplace is changing. While remote workers, many of whom identify as digital nomads, will embrace mobility to connect to their employers in new and diverse ways, those same employers are striving to engineer physical spaces that promote optimal work.

Workplaces have always adapted to changing organizational paradigms and scaled objectives—and to accommodate technology improvements. But change happens at many levels within physical structures, a concept described by architect Frank Duffy as Shearing Layers. This “systems thinking approach” posits that buildings consist of layers that evolve over different timescales, and Stewart Brand[2] elaborated on this concept by defining six such layers (see Figure 1)—Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff—in order of decreasing timescale over which change can occur.

Figure 1: Shearing layers

Consider the traditional factory: the building represented the relatively unchanging Site, Structure, and Skin layers, which required occasionally changing Services like power and other utilities. The Space Plan layer contained expensive, precisely laid-out machinery, upon which well-defined jobs and tasks could be performed to produce output from frequently changing Stuff, or inputs. Task coordination was relatively simple and productivity-focused, and thus embedded in the Space Plan layer.

In many industries (e.g., financial services,  software development) work is moving from a routinized, stable workflow to one that is more creative, agile, and cognitively intense. Accordingly, there is a major force upsetting the Shearing Layer theory: The Space Plan layer in many businesses is now apt to change much more rapidly, making way for new creative opportunities within physical space. This has several implications:

  1. Social ties may now be the most stable aspect of work.  A worker’s network of collaborators can be maintained and coordinated using social technologies like LinkedIn[3]. The workplace of the future will actually be many different and flexibly changing spaces, both physical and digital[4].
  2. Technology is changing where and how we work. Changes in technology allow workers to be virtually present in physical space in ways which were not possible before.

    Figure 2: Timeline – Changes in workplaces (5)

    Two concurrent trends—increased mobility options with technology and a surge in ride sharing (along with the promise of vehicle automation)—are making it possible for workers to be productive on their way to and from work. (See Figure 2)

  3. Figure 3: Workplaces are increasingly offering neighborhood services within the organizational structure

    Companies are bringing outside services inside.  In the new structure, companies increasingly provide personal and neighborhood services (onsite laundry, yoga, cafes) within the structure of the organization. We call this concept the Outside Neighborhood In Concept. (See Figure 3)

  4. Supporting multiple experiences at work is the next frontier. The office will not go away as a place of productivity, innovation, and work, but experiencing different environments and types of spaces throughout one’s day is increasingly important—and it’s expected by workers. To emphasize the importance of user experience of physical space within work settings, companies are creating multiple experiences to support different states of minds needed to conduct work.
  5. Design is a differentiator. Company culture is conveyed through the lens of space and furniture design. The explicit design and management of physical space  is the next frontier of workplace innovation. Companies can’t just throw comfortable connected furniture into an office space  and expect innovation to happen. Unique interiors and public-feeling open spaces set the tone for work, company culture, and attitude.
  6. Workspaces will be smart, responsive, and purpose-driven. The most important insights and opportunity for us here at PARC stem from the idea that technology will support work in physical space—the idea that spaces themselves, through technology, will be able to meaningfully intersect with the people who inhabit them to meet specific needs of those people and the organization.

Purpose-driven workspaces

At PARC, we are building on what we are learning by purposefully building smart, responsive, purpose-driven workspaces. We are tinkering, re-designing, and playing with various office environments in our own workspaces using PARC technologies to explore this intersection of physical and digital.

We believe that the future of work will transform the experience of work through recombining physical and digital assets in new ways. Learn more about PARC and the future of work.

  1. Coase, Ronald H. (1937). The Nature of the Firm“. Economica
  2. 1. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (Brand, 1994).
  3. Networked:The New Social Operating System,  Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, MIT Press, 2014
  4. Oldham, Greg R., and J. Richard Hackman. Not what it was and not what it will be: The future of job design research, Journal of organizational behavior 31.2‐3 (2010): 463-479. Also: Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26, 179–201.
  5. Coined by our colleague Mike Kuniavsky who white boarded this during a meeting.


James Glasnapp is a UX researcher with over 15 years experience executing primary cross-cultural research both in the U.S. and internationally. James motivates clients to look beyond the obvious and imagine future possibilities. His inspiration lies in finding opportunities to use ethnographic data to achieve process and technological innovation with respect to human interaction. As a Senior Member of PARC’s Research Staff, James’ areas of expertise include ethnography, evaluation, planning, behavioral therapy, requirement analysis, competency transfer, advertising, and public health.

Cristina Gaitán is a cross disciplinary user experience and environmental designer, and researcher, embracing design as a social, participatory practice. With experience in architectural, visual and interactive design processes, Cristina designs products, services, information graphics, and environments to create roadmaps for future technologies, technological experiences and holistic brand experiences.


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