A free-ranging conversation with Ray Wang of Constellation Research

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Ray” Wang, principal and founder of Constellation Research, on the evolution of work spaces, practices and culture in the COVID-19 era and beyond. Below are highlights from this illuminating conversation. Watch the 25-minute discussion here.

But first, here are my three takeaways from the conversation with Ray:

1. Create purposeful workspaces

Companies must be purposeful about the use of different workspaces. They have to:

  • Reimagine offices for innovation, collaboration, connection and trust
  • Make sure employees’ home offices are conducive to individual work as well as planning and coordinating with team members
  • Encourage employees to identify a third space for think time, ideation and inspiration—a backyard, a cabin in the woods or a simple walk around the neighborhood

2. Engineer moments of serendipity

We all need to get more creative about engineering opportunities for serendipity—or “unplanned collisions”—into our remote work life. The virtual happy hour is a good start, but there’s so much more to be done to trigger those magic moments when an idea sparks or an important connection is made.

3. Reinvent tired industries

Organizations’ response to the pandemic cannot stop at business continuity. They must push further, aligning around becoming a digital first company and, ultimately, embracing digital transformation as a state of mind. 

Highlights from My Conversation with Ray Wang

Carl: Your Post-Pandemic Playbook talks about how companies can adapt as the world re-opens. One of the things defining success is this notion of embracing digital transformation. How can companies cultivate a culture and a transformational mindset to adopt and accept digital transformation?

Ray: We’re living digital transformation. For a lot of folks that have been working from home, the quick change was the fact that it was okay. The hardest part, though, was the fact that everybody’s working from home. It used to be one or two people and then another person might be going to a physical location for work. This shift has actually transformed how we think about work and workspaces. That’s going to be one of the most important things that we look at.

We learned that 70 to 80% of the work we do can be done in a remote setting, using collaboration technologies and embracing a different spirit of digital transformation. There are some things that still have to be done in person. And people are going to work through those when that makes sense. But we’re going to see a bunch of hybrid models emerge for how we work from home and from remote locations.

Carl: We’re having conversations with customers about hybrid work environments. It’s about this notion of working from home versus when you return back to the office—and having a purpose for why you are going to the office. What’s your view on hybrid working?

Ray: We’re learning to think more about purposeful work. When I go into the office, what does that mean?

  • Is it a social visit?
  • Are we trying to collaborate on an idea that we can’t do in a remote environment?
  • Are we in a freeform brainstorming session?
  • Do we need a certain fidelity that’s required to build trust?

Carl: Let’s drill down on that. We’re having fewer moments of serendipity around innovation. Ginni Rometty of IBM said they are envisioning the office as much more of an innovation hub, and you’ll go to the office with a purpose. When we get back to the office workspace, will it be just a brainstorming and collaboration space?

Ray: Great point. We’ve been spending time talking about why some digital events don’t work and why certain digital technologies aren’t helping. It’s because we’re not designing for serendipity. That sounds oxymoronic when you say, “let’s design for serendipity.” But it’s that casual conversation. It’s that comment in the hall. It’s bumping into somebody you normally don’t see. We don’t build those into virtual interactions.

We’re not able to do that right now. That’s why we need some of those in-person meetings. We need to build those innovation labs. We need to build those creative spaces. And when we do get together, it’s about being able to build or rebuild those connections and spur sparks of innovation.

Carl: Do you see different remote working personas with different needs? How can we think intentionally about these personas?

Ray: Part of going to work is the social interactions that occur and the social structure. That’s part of building trust and being part of a team. Those have to be recreated in the digital sense. Because some individuals and personalities are feeling lonely at work. Other individuals don’t know when to stop in terms of how much work they’re doing. Another set of individuals are not getting the mentorship they’re used to getting. Some folks absorb those kinds of conversations in person much more than they do online.

Carl: How should we adapt our interactions with customers and prospects in this environment? I find that for customers where I have a relationship, it’s fairly easy to continue and extend that. But for new ones…I go back to these unintentional collisions.

Ray: A good friend of mine calls them random collisions. It’s so important to create those. We believe there’s a way to create customer and prospect events. They are a little bit more intimate—20 to 30 people. Invitees actually bring a friend so there’s some level of familiarity. What you do is you take cheese, wine, coffee or tea and you create a tasting session. It’s a way to gather. You bring a sommelier, a cheesemaker or some other master craftsman to share along the way. You have a great conversation. You get to meet everybody in a smaller group, share some information and then jump into an activity.

Carl: What are your thoughts on certain industries that are leaning forward at this critical time? And are you seeing industries that may be disrupted because they are not? I believe that times of major change are when the biggest disruptions happen.

Ray: We just wrote about density business models. If your business model is built on density, it’s dead. You’re going to have to rethink it. What do I mean by density? Think about retail’s focus on revenue per square foot. Think about live events and the focus on packing as many people in one place as possible. Airlines and transit are in the same boat. Those density models are dead. We have to rethink our digital monetization models. Digital goods, digital services, membership, subscriptions and advertising—those are the five big models.

Carl: A certain coffee shop company did very smart branding a few years back about the “third space.” We had the office, the home and the third space, which they thought was the local coffee shop. Is that idea still alive? And is there going to be a new third space?

Ray: I think the third space is what you create. It’s whatever you need to actually get work done and bring people together. The original concept still makes a lot of sense. But I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to evolve. It might even be an augmented reality room or virtual room where you’re actually sitting. There may be a fourth space. I’ve done enough podcasts and interviews from my car because I know it will be quiet. Hook the microphone up and we’re good to go.

Carl: Last question. Tell me something I don’t know that I should know.

Ray: One of the big things that’s happening is new digital business models built on five important concepts. The first is massive membership models. The second is multi-sided networks. The third is exponential technologies—cloud, video, AI, big data and edge computing all coming together. The fourth is decision velocity—helping people make quicker decisions and helping systems automate those decisions. The fifth is companies with a long-term mindset—not planning for the next quarter, but planning for the next decade.

Carl: Thank you, Ray. I appreciate your time and encourage people to follow you on Twitter. There are always some good nuggets there.

Ray: Thank you, Carl.

Watch the 25-minute discussion here.