Now that economic uncertainty has followed the pandemic, it is really not that clear what work will look like in the months and years ahead. While plenty of people reckon that “the genie is out of the bottle” and that office-based workers (who make up an increasingly large proportion of the total) will never return to their old ways, there are others who insist that the worsening economic environment is already bringing about a hardening of attitudes among employers so that workers will return to something like how they used to work for fear of losing their jobs.
Brad Harris, a professor in the department of management and human resources at HEC Paris, studies and works with HR leaders in fast-growing companies. Noting the recent lay-offs by big -tech companies, he says that the trend to stop hiring or even cut back is likely to become more widespread. Allied to this, he predicts that employers feeling under more pressure if a recession is approaching “are going to move back from employee-friendly policies and will add teeth to coming back to work.” As a consequence, he says he is “really, really sceptical” about the new ways of work continuing to be a feature.
There are still others who refuse to take one side or another, stressing that it is too early to tell how things will work out and pointing out that there are lots of complications and nuances. And, of course, “hybrid work” — the idea that employees work remotely at home or elsewhere most of the time and attend their workplaces for tasks that are better done face-to-face, such as certain types of meeting and to collaborate — is itself a compromise.
To obtain some idea of just how complicated it is, just consider for a moment the effects of the inflation that has been raging in the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere in recent months. On the one hand, there is an argument that the rising cost of going to work — increased fuel costs, more expensive food and the like — would make people more inclined to keep working from home. On the other, there is a view that the rising energy costs that are part of that inflation would win out and encourage workers to head for a place where their employer was paying the heating bills.
Such practical considerations, though, are just one aspect in the soul searching that continues as employers seek to work out how they can make best use of the possibilities opened up by a combination of technology and changing attitudes to how and where work is done.
Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor and author of many books on the future of work, is one of those who appears most enthusiastic about how things are developing. Her HSM Advisory consultancy has held various webinars reaching managers around the world exploring the role of the office and she has said that “covid has been the most significant catalyst for change [in the workplace] since Taylorism of the 1860s.” Asserting that “the role of the office is the world’s hottest topic,” she points to four key insights that she and her colleagues have gained from their extensive discussions with practitioners. They are:
Re-frame the office as one tool in the workplace eco-system. With hybrid working become more widespread, there is the opportunity to make the office a desirable destination rather than the place where employees must go.
Think about the purpose of the office. Acknowledging that what the office is for will depend on individual circumstances, Gratton’s team believes that for most it will combine the four themes of driving sustainable high performance, making the culture visible by showing how organizational and individual purpose align, building social capital, or the positive outcomes of “human moments at work,” and fostering wellbeing.
Design the office with your people in mind. By providing opportunities for employees to connect, employers can move away from the focusing on the physical aspects of an office towards concentrating on the behaviors, feelings and sense they want the office to evoke.
Think about the cognitive, behavioural and emotional. To achieve the outcomes set out requires thinking about how people experience work through such things as having the right tools to enable a seamless hybrid experience, how people interact with the workplace and with each other and how people feel at work.
Some of these address the concerns most frequently aired by those worried by the move towards remote or hybrid working — the lack of community and the reduction in the opportunities for those early in their careers to learn and develop. But it is clear that, even for those who see the changing working practices as a positive effect of advances in technology, there is going to be a lot of work to do to ensure that employers can meet workers’ expectations as well as their business objectives.
Mike Morini is chief executive of Workforce Management, a software company that helps organizations manage their employees wherever they are. He points to how the much-discussed younger generations of employees’ expectations of work and of their employers demand that executives adapt to take notice of workers’ conflicting demands on their time. Even with the economic outlook worsening, he maintains that companies will still be determined to keep their best people and therefore will need to be proactive in ensuring they are engaged. This is something of a challenge when increasing numbers of workers rarely visit their workplaces. One of the ways that software like that offered by his company can help is by alerting line managers to their subordinates’ workloads. If, say, a single mother has been assigned extra shifts, he or she can check to ensure they are happy with that because they need the money or whether it is creating a burden for them and they would prefer a different arrangement. The advantage of this is that it also provides an opportunity for the manager to generally check up on the employee and provide the feedback and appreciation that is seen as so vital today.
But Morini also stresses that it is not only executives who are having to adapt to new approaches in the wake of what he calls the rapid escalation in digitalization in the wake of the pandemic. Employees at all levels will have to take more responsibility for themselves when working from home. “You have to have self-starters,” he says.