CEO Blog March 2021: The Future of Work – Planning for the Unknown
6 months ago, the future of the workplace was an interesting question to ponder. Most identified the contradictions and dichotomies. On the one hand, we had become liberated by Tech. Neither the employer's fear of an inherent lack of productivity nor the limitation of systems to support our business was proving to be a reality. Indeed, there were huge advantages in terms of equality and digital reach. On the other, there was isolation and implications for mental wellbeing. A global study of more than 10 industries by Qualtrics and SAP in the spring of 2020 revealed 75% of people said they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people reported higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.  The commuter dividend somehow became absorbed into work, and working from home' slipped insidiously into 'living at work,' as the popular saying now goes.
No-one seriously believes we will be as willing to subject ourselves to the indignities and discomfort of crammed commuter trains. Who will happily flog many miles for a single meeting in future, having proved there is an alternative? However, face to face activities such as team building, creative collaboration, and networking need the very human elements of physical interaction to be most effective.
As we sit today with the prospect of more normal options represented by actual (albeit aspirational) red rings around dates on a calendar, this is less about pondering and more about planning. Not surprisingly, there is no single fixed plan or approach as few organisations have identical needs, ethos, or design. The requirements of their customers will lead some service industries, construction, and manufacture will manage the difference between those who need to be present to deliver outputs and those who can work more flexibly. Almost all wish (or acknowledge they may need) to preserve or improve an agile environment supporting employees who choose to either work remotely or from an office, either full- or part-time. Most surveys quote the ambition of employees to visit an office ‘one or two times a week’.
A recent speaker at a WIG discussion usefully carved the challenge into 'the work' (nature and requirements), 'the worker' (expectations and needs), 'the workplace' (designed to focus on what was important and necessary), and the 'work environment' (encompassing the culture and support required). This seems a useful model, but the requirements against these categories are mostly immature across the sectors, which makes firm decisions tricky.
Issues around developing younger talent within an organisational atmosphere, the potentially tenuous nature of organisational loyalty, if one zoom team looks much like another (and what that means for the predictability of skills migration and appetite for the investment in people) are difficult to pre-empt. HR departments scratch their heads about terms and conditions – do some employees get compensated if their roles require greater physical presence against a new norm of flexibility? What will the inevitable impact on workforce design be with geography so much less a factor and, in some cases, barely a factor at all?
Classic components of an engaged workforce include communication, health and wellbeing, environment, relationship with colleagues, personal and recognised contribution to an organisation, and growth and development. One can see the danger here if a simplistic and binary approach is grasped too readily.
Much will depend on how things evolve, and one can see a significant period of readjustment wherever the needle settles. Nevertheless, many WIG members have taken the approach of deciding what they think they can—defining certain principles as a framework for more detailed approaches as things become clearer—fundamentals around expectations, equality, differentials, organisational necessities, and cultural norms. There is uncertainty, opportunity, and risk in approaches to the future of work– which sounds a lot like everything else at the moment. As ever, this will be an issue of babies and bathwater and anyone preaching absolute certainty might not be ready to step into the bathroom.