Cross-sector reflections on the Future of the Workplace

WIG recently held a virtual networking event, and roundtable, with a focus on the future of the workplace. We welcomed attendees from across the sectors to discuss their ideas, approaches and organisational plans. This key topic is being addressed in virtual board rooms across the country as, after almost a year since the UK government announced the first nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we begin the process of easing restrictions. 

We asked three of our recent attendees to these events to provide us with a few takeaways, and some insights into their actionable plans in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Our three interviewees are David Hornsby, Senior HR Advisor, Leeds City Council, Kogila Balakrishnan, Director of Client and Business Development, Warwick University, and Leslie Benson, Senior Managing Director, People and Transformation, FTI Consulting. 


From your organisation's perspective, what would you consider the biggest challenges and opportunities when it comes to the future of the workplace?

Kogila: 

I am in the tertiary education sector – where COVID has created huge disruption in face to face delivery, student mobility and interaction. The whole industry had to, within weeks, move the teaching and learning experience from a face to face mode, and the physical dimension to on-line and interaction in a virtual environment.  The upside was how some of these institutions were better equipped than others in being able to quickly switch their operations and were geared up for it. At the same time, there were also huge issues around managing student interaction and social distancing in dormitories, access to laboratories, setting up apps for contact tracing and the use of technology.  

So, moving out, I see significant opportunities for my organisation.  First, the pandemic has highlighted that we can now use our time more effectively by splitting time between working from home and being in the office. The reduction in travel time means that we now have more time to spend on improving our course content, delivery, and enhancing the overall quality of research and teaching. For those whom travel to overseas teaching centres, there could be more opportunities now to offer blended and online teaching, either synchronised or asynchronized. In fact, my own experiences have shown that this experience can be much more enriching for students as we bring in a stronger team to deliver. Reduced business travels can also reduce costs for the organisation. In some instances, productivity may increase, as staff do not have such long commutes and have greater flexibility around work time.  

However, the  challenges may also be equally great, as we have large buildings and space that may now need to be used more effectively. What about the many cafes, conference centres and meeting places that have been built just for these purposes? What do we do with these spaces?  

At the same time, there may not be consistent productivity at all levels and all grades of workers. How do we monitor and ensure consistent high productivity? Similarly, challenges around the use of technology such as the use of the various technology platforms to teach. How well versed is everyone in handling such technologies, the cost of buying and maintaining such technology platforms, and the supporting infrastructure that is required. The other major issue will be around how to maintain group dynamics, the relationships, and the esprit de corps that we all receive from corridor chats, coffee sessions and the small talk that is needed to resolve negotiations. Can an online meeting solve such issues all the time?  We witnessed a greater number of individuals suffering from mental health issues either from isolation or lack of social mobility during the pandemic.  

Leslie

One big challenge we have identified is around leadership agility, and how we can best ensure that leaders and managers are equipped with the right skills to manage this global change and what it means for their organisations.  

A second point to consider is the extent to which organisations have ensured that they possess the right digital tools to support hybrid working effectively, from collaboration through to communications at any form.  

Additionally, organisations need to assess whether they can ensure effective compliance, safety and security in this new environment.  

There is also an opportunity to assess how we develop, engage and ensure the loyalty of workers in a more hybrid environment, particularly for the case of new joiners who need to both develop relationships and learn the tools of their trade.  

David

The rationalisation of our estate to meet financial pressures, plus the need to provide COVID-safe working environments, has given us the opportunity to modernise our workplaces, which we see as critical to modernising our working practices and allowing us to collaborate in a more productive, inclusive way.  People are starting to see the office as a tool for getting things done as opposed to a place they go to do things and this is helping us to develop a distinction between what we need to do in person and what can be done remotely, often more efficiently. The challenge is getting people to come along with us psychologically on this journey because these are big changes and after a year of great uncertainty, some will be looking for the familiarity of old places and faces, only to find that there have been changes with more in the pipeline. We are well aware that employee wellbeing must continue to be a top consideration and engaging with people who need individual attention to support them through these changes is perhaps a greater challenge than the physical or technological evolution of our workplaces.

People are starting to see the office as a tool for getting things done as opposed to a place they go to do things

What were the key takeaways for you at the Future of the Workplace networking event/roundtable?

Kogila

I learnt a great deal from the ‘Future of Workplace networking’ event.  I wish to highlight three key takeaways.  First, it was useful to learn that every sector had different challenges and some organisations were better prepared than others in handling crisis and manage risk. The changes were much easier for the category of high-skilled workers. Second, the session also highlighted that most people would prefer to shift to a new working model where they were given a choice to work from home as much as possible and only travel on a need to basis. This is because many have now had time to reflect on their work and how important it is to create a work life balance. The third take away was around technology and costs, where the increasing use of technology platforms and IT would mean that organisations need to invest in IT infrastructure, on digital platforms and on training their work force to handle this new work model.

Leslie

Three takeaways stood out to me.  

The first being the need to distinguish between, and best support, both desk-space and non-desk-space workers, with the aim of creating an environment that feels fair and reasonable for them.  

As we think about the future of the workplace, the way in which we adapt is less based on rules but rather should be based on roles, with an approach that feels reasonable and fair.  

One last point that came up very strongly is the need to ensure that everything that you do is ultimately aligned to the changing need of your internal and external customers.  

David

It was useful to hear different perspectives whilst at the same time to know that we are all grappling with similar issues. I made a new contact at the event and he has been very helpful since then as a sounding board as I develop ideas around productive hybrid meetings. I also had an interesting conversation in a breakout group around addressing performance issues within distributed teams.

Why was it important for you to gain an understanding of how different sectors are moving forward with the future of the workplace?

Kogila

I am in the education sector. We are at the heart of understanding how the future of work will impact on people’s employment, their livelihood and their future. This means different level of workers will need to adapt, obtain new skills or be retrained to work in the new environment.  For example, in the past a front desk receptionist in my department is needed to be there physically to receive guests and guide them. In the future, this function may become redundant. What do we do with the receptionist?  How do we train her so she can still operate in the new environment where she is able to communicate with someone working remotely from home and still give them the same experience?  Also, this will help me think through how educational institutions can make a sound rationale to policy makers and business leaders on the crucial changes around work place, the impact and the education on training and re-skilling that is required to address the skills gap for displaced workers. At the same time, the session was also useful for me to learn how the different sectors faced the challenges during the pandemic and what they did to keep the businesses functioning.   

Leslie:          

Understanding different sectors gives us an opportunity to understand the common threads that impact all workers and enables us to be thoughtful about people both at the top of organisations – how they need to change – as well as what the implications are specifically for people in the lower ranks of organisations.  

We clearly saw very adaptable people, but also people who have real concerns about how they can maintain social capital, how they learn, how they feel safe and agile in a changing environment. In almost every sector, the reality is that leaders are going to have to think very differently about how they role model the right behaviours to their employees. They will need to consider how they provide a different and more proactive leadership style, and how they adapt their behaviours in response to their values, in ways that are best suited to the changing environment.  

David

I already had some sense of this from press articles but often those are describing organisations or markets that are very different to the Local Authority setting in which I work. It was useful at the workshop to hear from those whose organisational landscape was more closely related to my own, whilst at the same time gaining an appreciation that employers from all sectors are facing similar challenges right now.

There has been a lot of discussion around the future of the workplace. What's next for your organisation? Is there a readiness now to action some of the plans?

We have taken the time to reshape our own workplace facilities, with a focus shift based on the new hybrid working environment we are moving towards.

Kogila

My organisation had been very proactive. The first few months was chaotic as none of us expected this sudden shock. It took us time to stabilise the work environment, and become grounded. Now, everyone has started thinking about the future of the workplace for an educational institution like ours. Of course, we accept that it will never return to the pre COVID state. We put in a lot of effort to enhance our IT infrastructure and move as much work as possible on-line during the pandemic. The next steps will be focused on what do we do around research, teaching and learning moving forward. How do we ease the return to work and the processes around social distancing, office space, cleanliness, wearing masks? What would be the optimum class size? How will the student teacher interaction evolve? There is already a step by step SOP being developed on return to work rules for staff at every level, grade and category of work.  Secondly, the guidance that has to be established between line managers such as monitoring, attendance at work and punctuality for certain types of work. Further, plans are also being developed on business travels in the UK and overseas though this is slightly harder for overseas travels due to a lack of clarity on rules and quarantine being imposed by different countries as well as carrying vaccine IDs. Overall, yes, there is a huge awareness and the need to action moving forward.                

Leslie

Given that our organisation is a professional services firm, we have had the opportunity to continue working very effectively for clients and with each other, notwithstanding the fact that we are in a virtual working environment. We have taken the time to reshape our own workplace facilities, with a focus shift based on the new hybrid working environment we are moving towards. Our teams will use our spaces to collaborate, to ideate, to find opportunities to work with clients, and to benefit both from the social and learning environment that our modernised facilities now provide.  

Our business is fully committed to the idea that there is no return to old ways of working. There is an opportunity to ensure that we create a more hybrid self-directed workplace – where teams, with all the appropriate constraints, will have the opportunity to decide how to use flexible working for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, whilst ensuring that the quality of their product is as excellent as ever.  

David

Financial pressures from higher service delivery costs and lower income during the pandemic, coupled with the need to provide infection safeguards in workplaces mean we have little choice but to action some of our plans quickly and some areas have already changed in preparation for returning employees.  Physical changes include more open collaboration spaces and fewer desks, and we are currently working on how we manage employees’ use of these sites.  We are also about to conduct another survey of those currently working from home to determine their preferences and expectations. A survey in Spring 2020 revealed a general acceptance of remote working arrangements, although at that time it looked as though they would not need to be in place much longer. Now it’s clear that they are more permanent, we want to ensure our plans and support will meet people’s requirements going forward.

Any further thoughts?

Organisations will need to be much more focused on aligning purpose and values to how people work in practice, particularly in an environment where people aren’t spending as much time together.

Kogila:

The pandemic has changed our work environment and how we work. I believe the last 12 months has revealed a lot to us in terms of how some work can be through virtual meetings. I do now know that I can have meetings with some of my colleagues without having to physically travel, and I can still obtain the same outcome through video conferencing. At the same time, I have also realised that some of my work cannot be done remotely: such as negotiations, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback and high-level policy advice. Again, the pandemic has made many of us reflect deeply on the meaning and purpose of work and appreciate our work life balance. However, these may only be a privilege to some in the highly skilled category who have access to the financial means, good home working environment and adequate internet or IT infrastructure and high-speed broadband access. Not everyone has that luxury. Not all jobs can be done from home, many will still have to travel especially those in construction and front-line workers. Many others who struggle to have a decent work space at home, lack a good working environment or access to IT infrastructure, feel isolated and lonely, and hence would long to go back to a face to face working environment soon. The pandemic has also revealed that some communities are more vulnerable than others and women have been severely impacted. Hence, there needs to be more effort to create a balance where there will be greater emphasis on diversity and equality in workplace.             

Leslie:            

Here are a few more areas we believe will be required to further evolve.  

Organisations will need to be much more focused on aligning purpose and values to how people work in practice, particularly in an environment where people aren’t spending as much time together. It will be crucial to ensure that the organisation’s culture is viscerally relevant to its people. In other words, we’re going to have to make some stuff much more “top-of-mind”.  

We are only now just beginning to see how a hybrid workplace is creating all kinds of implications for ensuring that organisations have the right culture of compliance, whilst sustaining their ability to be entrepreneurial and to grow. With that in mind, it’s going to be important for organisations to think more carefully about how they create and then measure their culture, in order to keep track of it.  

A third point to note is that organisations are going to have to think far deeper about how they craft roles in this environment. How people undertake their jobs now is going to change, and it will be important to think carefully about what that role-crafting looks like in future.  

This new environment – which of course is more sustainable and perhaps more reasonable – is going to have implications on two levels. It will require organisations to rethink how they drive learning, development, capability acquisition, etc. 

Simultaneously, they will have to demonstrate an understanding of the real impact on equity, diversity and inclusion – on the basis that in more home-work integrated environments, there may well still be a danger that women or individuals from BAME or other minority groups, for example, might find themselves more disadvantaged, rather than benefiting from the change.  

In the long run, how organisations plan both talent and build competency frameworks relative to their strategies and values is almost certainly going to have to take on a much more thoughtful perspective of what that means in a changing environment.  

David

It’s often difficult during online events to have meaningful conversations with other delegates but in this case the networking / workshop format worked well for me as a means of making new connections and learning from peers.


Take a look at our list of upcoming events, including virtual network events, here

Find our Future of the Workplace report here.

Sign up to our Future of the Workplace: A cross sector preview webinar here.


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