Let’s get ‘phygital’ – working out the future of work and education

Dr Nicola Millard
Dr Nicola Millard

Our mix of physical and digital workspaces is rudimentary and human skills will be as vital as future tech to making it work.

Two engineers examine a virtual reality engine turbine.

Discussions about the future world of work often boil down to two questions: how frequently should people be physically present in an office or campus, and how many jobs is artificial intelligence likely to displace? Although these are intriguing questions to ask, they aren’t the only things that need to be considered as we reshape the ways we work in the future.

The more important question to ask is: “how do we make work work?” We need to make sure that it works for the people doing it, for productivity, and for the planet. This means we need to look at the future of work, and that of education, through a much more strategic lens.

For a start, one of the biggest disruptors isn’t’s us.

The long-term trend in developed countries is that life expectancy continues to increase. This is brilliant, but it does mean that we are working longer as a result. For many people today the concept of retirement will be retired! This disrupts the traditional linear path of our lives (as Professors Linda Gratton and Andrew Scott extensively examine in their book, ‘The 100 Year Life’).

For many people today the concept of retirement will be retired!

We may no longer confine our education to our early years, because we are likely to need to reskill or retrain throughout our long lives (and AI is likely to accelerate this). We may have many jobs, but we might also want more choice in where and when we do them as we juggle the demands of our complicated, long lives (which is why hybrid and flexible work is unlikely to go away).

This offers up a challenge for employers, but a big opportunity for educators to offer different ways and means to develop an increasingly diverse body of learners.

Merging the physical and digital worlds

Digital is increasingly the common ground between where we work and learn. Things in the physical world are also becoming increasingly connected to the digital one. It’s all getting a bit “phygital” (which is a terrible expression used to describe the way that the physical world is merging with the digital one). This gives us an opportunity to do things in smarter and more agile ways, rather than continuing along a path of “business as usual”.

How we meet and collaborate is one thing that needs a radical rethink for the phygital world – particularly in the nightmarish hybrid scenario where half the people are in the room and half in digital space. Sadly, proximity biases and lack of presence for remote participants can mean that the room often dominates the conversation.

Basic requirements such as cameras that can capture the faces of everyone in the room, sensitive microphones, and access to e-chat for side conversations need to be in place for ALL participants. These tools can enhance accessibility of these sessions since geography is no longer a constraint, they can be recorded for everyone to access at any time, and they can be auto transcribed, translated, and summarised.

The ultimate trick to getting these sessions running smoothly, however, is effective facilitation and coordination to ensure that everyone can contribute (especially in larger groups).

But these technologies still deprive remote participants from having a tangible presence in the room.

The next incarnation of rich video technologies

Much of the conversation in the education space has been around the use of virtual reality. Although it can certainly play a huge part in training and simulation, the headsets can be a barrier. They can be expensive, nausea and dizziness can be an issue in more kinetic scenarios, and you do tend to look massively stupid wearing them!

Mixed reality, where glasses are optional, might be a better way of adding an extra dimension to meetings and active learning environments. For example, augmented reality, AI and haptics could be used to help trainee engineers fix things either without supervision (using pattern recognition to auto-label objects in the environment), or with a remote supervisor literally seeing through their eyes.

Immersive spaces use projectors to turn entire rooms into interactive environments where you can explore the bottom of the ocean or immerse yourself in the chaos of the aftermath of a road traffic accident.

You can explore the bottom of the ocean or immerse yourself in the chaos of the aftermath of a road traffic accident.

Volumetric video could also add an extra Star Wars-esque dimension to future sessions (with or without ear pastries). This technology uses multiple cameras to generate real-time avatars or three-dimensional holograms that can give people (particularly presenters) a more tangible presence in either the virtual or real world.

The digital world can add a lot to the future world of work and education…but this alone won’t make meetings or lessons more interesting or engaging. That ultimately comes down to human skills, ingenuity, and an ability to think phygitally.

Further information

Book your ticket for Digifest 2024 taking place in person at the International Conference Centre (ICC) Birmingham, and online, on 12-13 March 2024.

Registration for in-person attendees closes at 9am on Tuesday 5 March 2024, or at 10am on Monday 11 March for online bookings.

Digifest 2024 is a CPD-accredited event. Attendees can contribute their learning time towards individual continuing professional development goals. Jisc members and customers receive two free in-person tickets per organisation.

About the author

Dr Nicola Millard
Dr Nicola Millard
Principal innovation partner, BT