Could the world of work better serve our needs, if we saw past our own expectations?
The end of 2020 gives us all a good chance to reflect on a year that has had a fair few surprises up its sleeve. One of the issues occupying my mind this year has been the shift to remote working. Not only what this means from a practical perspective (with an impact on our work-life balance, and mental and physical wellbeing), but also what it says about our attitudes around work, and how these might be changing.
The biggest shift I can identify in the world of work during covid-19 is a change around expectations of what it means to be at work, both as an employee and as a provider of services to clients.
In a pre-covid world, being at work more often than not required a physical presence. Clients and employers alike simply expected it as part of the deal. It now seems bizarre, but the strength of this attitude was enough to sustain key characteristics of our economy – the make-up of our cities, the existence of commuter belts, and an entire industry of international corporate air travel for those meetings considered too serious to conduct over the phone.
Limited technology adoption might have played a part, but in general, the view was that business capital could only be properly exchanged in person, and being professional meant being physically present.
A change is going to come
Although there are of course other reasons to 'go to work' in the traditional sense, employees stuck in daily commuting cycles and travelling around the world for half a day of meetings probably wondered why things couldn't be different. The technology was already there to make it happen, and many of us already worked remotely – at least some of the time. But as long as the expectation of proper work was pinned to the office, this couldn't change in a meaningful way.
Then, of course, came covid-19, which forced the hand of the world's organisations to think about work differently. Overnight, remote working became the norm. It could no longer be viewed in comparison to being in the office - as a less desirable alternative, or even as a perk offered to trusted employees. It became the only option. And the results have been impressive.
The world is my office
The main benefit of working from home is increased productivity, with two thirds of employers reporting increased productivity from remote employees compared to those in the office. Even as this extended period of remote working might have caused employee output to dip slightly, the coronavirus mass remote working experiment has generally gone better than expected.
Yet it's not all been plain sailing. Fully remote working is very difficult to do properly, and very few companies would attempt it in normal circumstances. As we've found during the pandemic, collaboration, sales, and social interactions are more difficult to adequately replicate online. Covid has also highlighted other problems in the form of poor home working spaces (particularly amongst younger generations), a lack of learning and networking opportunities, and the loss of those serendipitous conversations or chance meetings that spark new ideas and avenues for business.
These drawbacks (and mounting feelings of loneliness and isolation amongst home workers) probably mean that we're all looking forward to heading back to the office in some shape or form when restrictions ease. However, as a result of this year, attitudes towards remote work will have changed for good.
Even if it isn't practised by everyone, all of the time, working from home will remain a normal feature of our lives. In a challenging economic environment, corporate budgets – particularly around travel and real estate – will shrink, safe in the knowledge that we made it work before. Organisations will rethink their physical spaces, likely reshaping them as a locus for collaboration and social interaction, with those needing individual thinking time more productively spending it at home.
But what's next? If covid-19 opened up our eyes to a different way of doing things, then what other business constraints are we holding ourselves to – simply from the sheer weight of expectation that they can't be done otherwise?
If we start from the principle that the world of work can be whatever we want it to, then what would it look like?
The future Future Of Work
When I asked this question of our Group companies at The Panoply, responses included creating the best working conditions for every single person as an individual; working less; and encouraging new ways of decision making within organisations, favouring flatter structures over management hierarchies.
Of these, I think reducing the amount of time employees are expected to spend doing work is the most likely to send a shiver down the spine of managers. It's a bold step from a leadership perspective, but could asking employees to work fewer hours actually result in their achieving more?
There's evidence to support this. A trial of six-hour working days in Sweden found employees logged less sick leave, reported better perceived health and boosted their productivity, although there were also associated costs. Coronavirus might have led some companies to cut staff hours as a way of saving money, but forward-thinking employers - such as electric bicycle manufacturer Brompton - were already offering a nine day fortnight working pattern or four day week to promote wellbeing and personal development. It's certainly a good strategy for attracting the best talent.
We're asking the questions
Whether it's working less or having a more personalised working experience, events of this year should lead all of us to ask questions more generally about our working lives. Coronavirus brought many successes from a momentous change to working culture that would never have happened organically. So, is it time to reassess other areas of work? How could we make further improvements if we used technology and an open mindset to our advantage?
We'd have to start from the very basics, asking:
- What do we want from work? What should it look like, and how should we do it?
- How much of our lives should we dedicate to it?
- What should a modern organisation seek to achieve?
If we began to ask these kinds of questions, we might see ways in which our current expectations around work and working culture are holding us back. After all, before covid-19, not many employers would have willingly let all their people work from home, all the time. But they have probably been pleased with at least some of the results.
So what really is the future of work, and - perhaps more importantly - what will it take to get us there?
Research and Insights Manager
Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.