An interview with John Maeda @ Publicis Sapient

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” — General Eric Shinseki

What do you envision the office will look like in a post-pandemic world?

There will be three priorities in mind:

  • Safety for individuals: both physical and psychological.
  • Safety for groups: leaning heavily on technology to create proximity with distancing.
  • Conscious collaboration over cooperation: differentiating between these two modes consciously.

What changes to the office experience, from the commute to actually being in the office, can and should be made to prioritize employee health and safety? What are the implications in terms of privacy?

  • Commuting experiences will involve a lot more signage to remind us that surfaces are safe — think “wet paint” signs everywhere.
  • I’ve seen the article go around from the WEF about traffic lights used for bathrooms in Italy — we’ll see more active signage like that too.

Having spent three years prior to my current job working all remote at the largest all-distributed company, Automattic, I came to realize the paradigm’s strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think that Work From Home (WFH) will be valid for all roles and kinds of work — we’ll still see a need to return to In Real Life (IRL) and collaborate. We can count on a lot of innovation sprout up of both the artistic-kind and the business-relevant kind. Just take a look at the incredible array of choices we now have for face masks — it’s unbelievable.

Giving tech companies and the government more access to our data in the name of public health is only okay if we consider a “kill switch” that can turn it all off.

Regarding privacy, I’ve made my stance on privacy in the Guardian and in my recent briefing for WIRED. I believe that tech companies have access to more high-resolution data on us than ever before. So giving them even more data, and that includes governments, in the name of public health is only okay if we consider a “kill switch” that can turn it all off. That’s more of a lawyer question than an engineering question — I’d love for that debate to enter the foreground. In my 2020 CX Report I double-click on the topic of privacy and how customer experiences are crafted today to help more people understand what the tech economy is really all about.

What efforts is Publicis Sapient making to redesign its office spaces around the health and safety of its employees? What are the company’s reopening plans?

The reopening plans are in flux and we have no official dates. I can assure you that the safety of our employees is first and foremost. We are a people business — and so taking care of our people is important to us.

So we are still working through what reopening will look like and are following local guidance to ensure our employees’ safety is prioritized. In a post-pandemic world this is what everyone’s doing — which is prudent. Every region is being impacted differently.

Remote work has become the norm for many — do you see this continuing after the pandemic? How can organizations make sure that remote work is being done effectively and efficiently?

I don’t see WFH continuing for high trust** businesses that leverage the most powerful sensor we have in our body: the nose. It’s hard to judge how things are going without the sense of smell — especially in large groups. I know that sounds weird, but after having gone into the perfumery space I became aware of how incredible our noses are.

That said, remote work is terrific for software developers because it’s how they already work — in front of a computer. Developers use highly advanced ways to collaborate with so-called “version control systems.” Software developers are at least 100X more effective than any other person trying to get work done remotely.

I don’t see WFH continuing for high trust** businesses that leverage the most powerful sensor we have in our body: the nose.

Another category of employee that’s benefited by remote work is any kind of customer support job by telephone or computer. That’s an industry that’s already moved in this direction — and it will only accelerate.

**High trust businesses are the political sector and any industry that involves the largest amount of wealth or the largest impact on life.

In your opinion, are there positive changes to the way we work that have come out of this, and if so, what are they? Do you think they will last beyond the pandemic?

I think the most positive changes to how we work is becoming aware of each other’s personal lives and how complex they really are outside of work. Blurring them together in the WFH era has made people who have no childcare or eldercare duties to become more aware of how their families really operate. I’ve become much more aware of domestic violence and the need for prison reform during the C19 era because when your home isn’t a place that is desirable, then WFH makes no sense. Lastly, growing up as the son of a small business owner that produced food products my heart is out to everyone in the restaurant and services industry who is currently out of a job.

In what ways do you envision city life in Boston being redesigned post-pandemic?

When you consider the design of the most incredible cities in the post World War II era they tend to involve public green spaces. London is first and foremost the example of that visionary step for its inhabitants. We have Boston Commons, of course, and New York has Central Park.

So when new spaces are re-designed in Boston, and in the rest of the world, we’re going to be more aware of the healing power of spaces that are open, more natural, and less confined. And for many of us having been cooped up right next to our computers for all too long, we’re going to see a renewed appreciation for the world outside of the office or workplace. But for a short period of time, as we’re seeing in China right now, folks will be more than glad to have their commute back and engage in the newly self-sanitizing watercooler gossip just like pre-pandemic days.

With the acceleration in digital caused by the pandemic, do you anticipate that more jobs will be replaced by AI/automation?

In my new book How To Speak Machine, I trace the history of computing to its current day state of being ubiquitous but poorly understood. As someone who “grew up” at MIT back when it had a maturing Artificial Intelligence Lab in the 80s, it’s useful to take account of what AI is and what it isn’t. AI is simply anything that computational systems now afford in our environment, and the now impact many aspects of our lives. Computation never gets tired, so if it’s tracking our movements right now then it’s just as easily tracking them all the times, interminably. We human beings can’t do what computing machines do.

Many people don’t know How To Speak Machine — less than 3% of the US grads each year are computer science majors.

Just like at the turn of the last century during the third industrial revolution when textile mills were the computers of the day — equipped with Jacquard looms — which are literally computers if you know how they use punch cards. The term “luddite” comes from the era when workers did all they could to stop the progress of the AI of that day from taking away their jobs. The reality is that a new generation of jobs emerged that resulted in even more employment opportunities. That same situation is happening right now, but the reason why it’s not being felt the same way is that it involves the invisible world of computation. Many people don’t know How To Speak Machine — less than 3% of the US grads each year are computer science majors. So I say that if you know how to speak machine, even un poco, you’re headed in the right direction to be less likely to be replaced.

Any last parting thoughts?

One of my favorite sayings is by retired US Army general Eric Shinseki. I keep a portrait on my wall of General Shinseki being given an award by Governor Burns of Hawaii with JFK present in the ceremony. Having been named after JFK by my mother — a third-generation American from Hawaii — the image has a lot of symbolism in it for me. I’ve added the quote by General Shinseki over this vintage photo and it reads, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” I believe in that statement profoundly.

Learn more about Publicis Sapient at publicissapient.com

We bridge business strategy and scaled engineering with dataful experiences. https://publicissapient.com/experience

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