The pandemic ushered in conversations, unconventional accommodations, and decisions about remote work, which has since evolved into hybrid work. With workforce shortages across the globe, thought leaders, industry, and higher education grapple with the conundrum that has yet to unearth simple solutions.  

Virginia Tech has been an engaged, innovative leader in the conversation. Amid the pandemic the university launched its Future of Work project in effort to determine how best to incorporate new workplace expectations while continuing to support academic and research missions and commitment to in-person instruction and learning experiences. Additionally, various classes helped students explore the implications of advancing technology on life and work.

Recent university research funded by the National Science Foundation under its Future of Work program includes numerous awards totalling almost $13 million. Reflecting the broad range of expertise of Virginia Tech faculty, these awards explore future work applications in farming, autonomous vehicles, human-robot collaborationvirtual and augmented reality, distributed manufacturing, and medical teams.

To build on the momentum of existing research, the newly formed Virginia Tech Center for Future Work Places and Processes uses transdisciplinary research related to the design, development, and deployment of future work spaces, processes, and domains, with an emphasis on human-centered approaches to focus on the individual and the broader workplace.

“We are excited to lead this area of research and contribute to the student experience that seeks to uncover new and innovative approaches to tomorrow's modern workplace,” said Ben Knapp, executive director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech. “Our work is open-sourced — meaning, we can share our expertise and knowledge with the state, nation, and the world that will influence policy and economics. The end goal is to improve the health and welfare of future workers, employers, and communities, leading to a more equitable distribution of prosperity.”

“The complexity of the fast-evolving jobs and workers calls for multiple levels of coordination and collaboration to overcome the pending challenges and to shape the future of work,” said Sue Ge, inaugural director of the center and professor of economics in the College of Science. “The new center has been founded for that purpose: to convene the diverse array of expertise to help drive innovation in research and education forward while providing strategic guidance to build a future of work that is creative, integrated, inclusive, equitable and symbiotic.”  

Housed in ICAT, the center will leverage existing research strengths across the university in a range of areas that will impact the future of work including immersive environments, human-computer interaction, machine learning/artificial intelligence, human-centered design, the intersection of digital technologies and work, crowdsourcing, autonomous systems and labor policy.  

“With the center structure in place, Virginia Tech will expand in areas we have existing expertise, but also in domains that are constantly evolving, like manufacturing, health care, and education,” said Tom Martin, deputy executive director of ICAT. “This will enable Virginia Tech to become an international leader in both research and education in the future of work space.”

As the center’s founding member, Martin collaborated with Ge, Knapp, and other researchers to develop the center’s charter. Earlier this month, Martin began his temporary reassignment as the program director of National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Health and Human-Centered Computing programs in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate for the next two years.

In research areas and education opportunities, the center will emphasize transdisciplinary expertise at the intersection of domains such as technology, design, policy, and economics. For example, the center will provide frameworks for a new social contract for work that enables people to obtain a living income, engage in meaningful and safe work, have a healthy work-life balance, and steward environmental resources.

In an associated project, several members of the center’s executive committee have been collaborating with industry partner Steelcase to reimagine medical workspaces and develop health care places that humanize the experience in a workplace that has become increasingly data-driven. The Virginia Tech team of ICAT faculty from computer science, architecture, industrial design, psychology, and health care studied the impact of medical workspaces on the clinician experience and how those workspaces could be improved to reduce some of the sources of burnout. Using digital and physical full-scale prototypes, the team enacted clinical care scenarios to seek feedback and reflect on the design.

“What we found is that the technologies aren’t seamlessly integrated into the work of caring for patients. As a result, clinicians are dealing with new sources of data that have the potential to be useful but aren't necessarily providing clinical teams with a better shared awareness of a patient’s needs,” Martin said, also a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The university has invested in major research initiatives called Research Frontiers, bringing together diverse expertise that transcends traditional discipline boundaries. The framework of the center will allow researchers to build on Virginia Tech’s existing strengths in health and artificial intelligence, such as augmenting human performance and understanding the impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics on the workforce.  

On the student side, undergraduate and graduate students will engage in educational and research opportunities that will  prepare them to succeed in future workplaces, practices, and domains.

“With research and student workforce development front and center, one goal will be to develop new partnerships with industry, nonprofit organizations, and other universities,” said Martin. “We need varied perspectives focused on this area to fulfill workforce needs and rethink the way we work. Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus is situated, both in terms of geography and socioeconomics, midway between some of the most well-off and least well-off areas of the country. Exploring new ways of working will be essential to finding ways to bridging those gaps.”

In addition to Martin and Ge, the center’s executive committee represents five colleges: Ralph Hall, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; Aki Ishida, associate professor in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design; Sylvester Johnson, professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; Kurt Luther, associate professor in the College of Engineering; Lisa McNair, professor in the College of Engineering; Sarah Parker, department chair in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; Chris Williams, professor in the College of Engineering; and Ricardo Coleman, graduate student in the College of Engineering.

ICAT, administratively housed in the Office of Research and Innovation, is powered by advanced technology and networks of creative people. The institute brings together and supports teams of faculty and students from across academic disciplines to address grand challenges and creative opportunities, ranging from large societal problems to industry-specific issues to the frontiers of artistic expression. Home to the Cube, a four-story-high, state-of-the-art theater and high tech laboratory that serves multiple platforms of creative practice by faculty, students, and national and international guest artists and researchers, the institute engages with collaborators around the world in cutting-edge research and outreach.

On Jan. 27 at 185 Kent St., Community Assembly, Creativity and Innovation District LLC, Ge is hosting an ICAT playdate and will provide an overview of the center and ways faculty and students can be involved in its projects.


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Written by  Lindsey Haugh