The experts included Bruce Daisley, former Twitter VP, current host of successful business podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat and Sunday Times bestselling author; Dr Heejung Chung, reader of Sociology and principal investigator of Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work Life Balance at the University of Kent; and David D’Souza, membership director at CIPD.
While it’s difficult for anyone to predict the future of our offices and the way we work, the experts raised some insightful points around how workplaces and culture may change in the coming months and years. These are our top six predictions for the future of work.
Work culture will separate the good from the bad
More than ever before, work culture is the “number one thing [employees] rate as the most important thing [in looking for a new job],” Daisley says. It’s no secret that much of the talk on websites like Glassdoor centres on workplace culture and benefits.
While some of the most enviable jobs are with large tech companies who offer increasingly attractive benefits, it can also be argued that “broadly, our experience of our job is largely determined by our line manager” more than anything else, Daisley explains.
However, in five years’ time, Daisley believes “there will be a strongly differentiated series of workplace cultures.” Businesses will need to be conscious of the cultures they are creating, as what works for some will definitely not work for others.
The COVID-19 crisis has given firms the opportunity to refocus their company culture and adapt it to changing work practices. D’Souza recommends that managers start with questions like, ‘How do we want to treat our people?’ or, ‘How do we want to work with our customers?’ which can be a catalyst for this shift.
Remember, choices made about new working styles – like adopting a remote working policy – will also have an effect on company culture. For example, if a company chooses to fully embrace flexible working as part of their company culture, this will “provide an... opportunity to actually broaden… talent pools [and] to bring people in [to companies in] a more inclusive way,” D’Souza explains.
However, if, for example, a company decides to transfer their prior working practices to a virtual space without adapting to the new medium, this could lead to Zoom fatigue or other negative consequences, he argues.
Businesses will turn to experts in working remotely
While there will be different ways of working remotely in the future, if you’re looking to make the transition, learn from experts and companies who have this way of working “baked into their DNA,” says Daisley. Tech firms like Automattic and Buffer have been inverting the office model since day one, working with no physical office space. “If the old model of work was that we spend 11 months in the office and one month out of the office or on holiday, [their] model is you spend 11 months out of the office, but one month a year together with your colleagues.”
Working this way would, of course, require a complete overhaul in collaborative working. For example, in the place of an in-person meeting, you might “use the power of asynchrony,” an approach that would allow multiple people to work collaboratively on the same document over 48 hours, Bruce explains.
When looking to other firms for inspiration, though, D’Souza warns to err on the side of caution. Businesses won’t be able to “lift and drop” the practices of a completely different company, such as trying to take a tech company’s remote working practices and implementing them in a financial services company. Review their processes and carefully consider your own business and the needs of your employees before making any decisions.
Flexible working will play into the future of work in a big way
As Chung puts it, “the genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to flexible and remote working. While many managers were hesitant to allow these practices before the pandemic, possibly due to a lack of trust in their workers’ effectiveness or productivity, millions of workers have now had experience in working from home.
In the UK, Chung estimates that 15% of the working population had the opportunity to work from home before the virus, while this number has now exploded. This is backed up by Tiger Recruitment’s research of UK workers, which revealed how 46% of people suddenly found themselves working from home for the first time at the start of the pandemic.
Dr Chung expands on the benefits of being able to work completely remotely, one being the re-building of communities away from traditional working capital cities. This movement of people may build back local communities and result in improvements in diversity, bringing more age groups and ethnicities to suburban towns and rural areas. Longer term, property prices and carbon emissions are also likely to be impacted.
But it won’t always be perfect
D’Souza is pleased that the pandemic has resulted in an increased technology investment for many businesses. He adds that the “core of…a flexible working culture is people having access to different styles of work...that will help add time” to their days.
Dr Chung’s research also backs up this statement: her research has found that, while many employees do want to work from home, the success of this is dependent on a person’s individual requirements.
For example, if an employee has children and can work from home, “they want their partners to work from home” as well, as school/nursery closures have made this situation more difficult. She explains that the stigmas surrounding men talking “about their personal needs” and asking for flexible working options can actually inhibit women’s freedoms at work. If this isn’t addressed, companies will “lose so many of the precious human resources that women can bring to companies.”
That being said, there are other aspects businesses should consider if they’re looking at evolving their remote or flexible working policy post-COVID-19.
Firstly, not everyone will have the same capacity to, or even want to, work remotely. For example, some workers may feel socially isolated from not being in the office, or they may not like to communicate over the phone or via video.
Daisley explains how “it’s very easy to form a perspective of working from home that’s based on your subjective experience [and] misses out a lot of people.”
Working from home can also result in what Chung describes as “boundary-blurring,” where employees actually work longer hours when they don’t leave a physical ‘office’.
To prevent this, there needs to be a way to better protect workers who aren’t in the office, whether it’s a culture shift within the company or a mandatory system shut-off. The blend of home and work may be worse for employees in certain sectors, such as call centre workers, who experience frequent negative interactions with customers. Permanently working from home would, for them, potentially make it more difficult to switch off and decompress at the end of the day.
There needs to be an analysis and adaptation of existing work cultures and practices if a company chooses to switch to a remote working model. Otherwise, Chung suggests “you’re going to have the same problems [as you do in the office], with presenteeism [and] ineffective work.”
D’Souza mentions that if an organisation approaches flexible working with “the primary driver [as] cost-saving,” it’s not going to be effective. In fact, “the prime thing organisations need to do is listen, more so than any other time,” he says. Having these open channels for people to talk about their wellbeing and think about how they want to achieve productivity is essential when switching to a flexible working model.
Finally, true flexible working won’t be achieved if employees are forced to work from a location close to the office. As Daisley explains, “if people are having to go into the office two days a week, then the whole benefit of remote working is deleted completely...if you can go and work from the Highlands of Scotland...[or] the fjords of Scandinavia, then it permits you to actually get some benefit from this experience of not being in the office.” If a company is “just going to try and half [their] property bill and haul people in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” this isn’t moving to a true remote working model.
Workers should use the pandemic as an opportunity to consider what their job actually means
All of our experts agree that having a workday stripped down to core tasks is a positive thing. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to analyse how we actually spend our time throughout the workday. For the “first time in a long time,” Daisley explains “we’re being asked to consider what our job actually is,” outside navigating an inbox and turning up to meetings. Dr. Chung agrees, stating that many firms are now “working on the new kind of culture…[versus the]...traditional...nine-to-five styles” of working.
Rather than returning to pre-pandemic working styles, Chung suggests we should all aim to be “working shorter hours...where we only do and focus on some of the meaningful work.”
D’Souza agrees, stating that some people, on reflection, will find their role – in its current form – isn’t really delivering much value to the company.
“If we can move to a place where...we’re delivering value and we make a difference – that would be really healthy.” Ultimately, this new way of working will allow employees to manage their own time in regards to their personal concerns and family demands, only completing essential tasks with a “no-frills” approach, Chung explains.
To do this, Bruce suggests workers should consider “what four actions can I make every day to do my job better?” Chung holds a similar view, stating that “workers are getting focused in terms of what needs to be done [and] prioritising work.” She suggests that “this is a really good time to get workers involved” in groups to ask this question together and come up with solutions with their managers.
Offices, as we know them, will be a thing of the past
Considering many firms’ offices have laid vacant for months (and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future due to the recent rise in COVID cases), it’s no surprise that business owners are reflecting on the potential rent savings by moving to a permanent remote working model. Many business leaders, of both large and small companies, are realising business output hasn’t changed with the majority of their workforce working from home.
Even if firms do bring back their employees, for the foreseeable future it will be at “30-50% of what you previously had,” Daisley continues. This will mean the social side of work, like desk chatter and Friday afternoon drinks, won’t be possible.
Workers will also miss “overhearing fragments of conversations” and lessons from others in the office, so training is something “good organisations are going to be taking more account of,” Daisley says.
Chung agrees, explaining that we won’t be able to rely on these “informal interactions with colleagues and the community kind of feeling within the culture.” Managers, therefore, will need to prioritise team-building and creating opportunities for staff to socialise.
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