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The Future of Work: Designing Technology That Makes Us Feel Better at Work

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Using the gesture-based entry system. (Photo: New York University's Game Innovation Lab)

Using the gesture-based entry system. (Photo: New York University's Game Innovation Lab)

We spend so many hours on our devices, tapping and typing, racing to keep up. We aren’t getting up and moving our bodies as much as we did before, or spending quality time face to face. And the amount of time we focus on any given task without shifting to another has gone down. Technology has been changing our daily lives so much, and not all for the better.

Katherine Isbister is a professor of computational media at the University of California–Santa Cruz. She previously directed the Game Innovation Lab at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering.

So what can we do? In today’s workplace, there are already some great retrofitted solutions to improve well-being and focus. Work at a standing desk, or a desk equipped with a treadmill. Sitting on a yoga ball can give the body better support. Many apps now remind workers to take a break, rewarding them with points or locking them out of their computer for a set period so they are forced to stop.

(Photo: Rod Searcey, 2014)

(Photo: Rod Searcey, 2014)

As a human computer interaction researcher, I think we can go further, re-engineering the ways that people engage technology in the workplace. I lead a group that builds prototypes of technologies that make both work and play more comfortable, even more enjoyable. Our approach takes advantage of the growing array of sensors and cameras and Internet-connected objects available in the modern work environment.

Let’s take for example one mundane activity: unlocking your office door. We’ve created an entry system that uses gestures instead of key cards. To unlock the lab door, you create your own gesture and do it in front of cameras and other sensors that we’ve placed outside the door. The software uses biometrics—unique qualities of how you move and how you look—to figure out if it’s you or not.

It feels magical and powerful to open a door with a gesture—it’s a common idea from fairy tales and adventure stories (such as the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). It turns out that gestures and postures can also affect how you feel. In a TED Talk about ‘‘power poses,’’ Amy Cuddy explains that taking up a lot of space with one’s arms and standing tall for just a few moments can lead to feelings of empowerment, change one’s body chemistry (raising testosterone and reducing cortisone), and result in more risk-taking. We’re testing whether door-entry gestures can influence how our lab members feel as they begin work each day.

This technology shifts something that is at best mildly annoying (having to find and use a key card) to something enjoyable, maybe even lifting one’s mood. Imagine a work environment in which many aspects were re-engineered in this way, with physical, emotional and social well-being in mind. Maybe sorting and sending email could be more like doing tai chi—restful and mildly physical. There’s no reason you couldn’t use healthful, gentle full-body gestures while standing in front of a window-like screen that has sensors built in, to do the work you now do seated at a keyboard and touchpad, shoulders drifting up near your ears if you aren’t careful. If you’ve ever used an Xbox Kinect device to play a game, you have some idea of how this could work.

Maybe networked communication could let us make artful use of our bodies as well as our ‘‘talking heads’’ to convey important information, build trust, and enjoy one another’s company. When you meet with a group in person, how close you stand to each other, and whether you face each other or turn away, and when, all matter. You send subtle cues about how you feel as things go along, with your body. What if videoconferencing allowed you to use all these signals with the people you’re talking to, and you could do it standing up and moving around more freely?

My research team also believes technology can do a much better job of keeping us focused on one another when we’re together, instead of distracting us. For example, imagine a transparent screen that allows people standing on either side to keep eye contact as they move digital information around between them. Research shows that eye contact and coordinated movement build trust and affection—workplace technology can be designed to augment these effects rather than diminish them.

I believe it’s possible to re-design workplace technology to leave people feeling refreshed, connected, and energized at the end of the day. We have a unique opportunity to do this now, because sensing technologies have gotten so cheap and stable, and because broad network connections are so readily available. Let’s begin a broader conversation and coordinate action among technology researchers and developers to shape the future workplace so it better supports everyday well-being.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.