When future historians look back at the pandemic era they may well find it curious that we were so hung up on where work was done, rather than the work itself, says Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT. Much is being talked about “home working”, “remote working”, “hybrid working” and “digital workplaces” now, but very little of the conversation so far has been about reinventing work itself.
Many of the conventions shaping today’s workplace came from the industrial age. Before the industrial revolution, home and work were often blended. Factories gave us an optimised and centralised workplace, the 9 to 5 working day, and the weekend (which is a relatively recent invention). Offices took on many of the productivity principles forged in the heat of the factory and shaped by ‘scientific management’. Mass transportation then brought the ability for us to work further away from our homes and communities. The commute was born and, until 2019, commute times in the UK had been going up, not down.
Digital had been chipping away at the old ways of working before the pandemic – the new “mass transportation” was the cloud, collaboration tools and connectivity. But, despite that, the ways that we worked hadn’t really changed that much.
The pandemic disrupted that status quo. For many of us, our homes became our workplace and the commute became a process of putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and walking across to the spare bedroom. UK homeworking grew 19% almost overnight (with 47% of workers in the UK doing at least some of their work from home, compared to 28% pre-pandemic, according to the Office of National Statistics). Now we are realising that much of our work can be effectively done outside the four walls of the office. But there is a lot that we can learn from this current mass remote working experiment – and much of it is about the changing the ways that we work, not just the location that we work in.
1. Hybrid work is not about working from an office 3 days a week and working from home for 2 days.
Just as a Zedonk doesn’t spend 3 days a week as a zebra, and 2 days as a donkey, hybrid work is a separate species of work entirely. The ideal is to create the best of both breeds, rather than creating a monster – a ‘horrible hybrid’.
We’ve all probably experienced horrible hybrids before. Those meetings where half the people are in the room and half remote tend to severely short change the people dialling in, because out of sight often equates to out of mind. The pandemic has shown us that digital is a great leveller. When everyone is sitting in their own virtual celebrity square, everyone is equal. This suggests that the hybrid workplace is digital first (i.e. everyone is on a digital platform regardless of where they are) – which means that both physical spaces and leadership styles need to adapt.
2. Offices are places that we go to socialise about work.
Most of us are missing the face-to-face contact that offices used to give us – because we are social creatures. They were becoming collaboration tools, even before the pandemic. But this period of social isolation has also taught us that offices are a powerful way to create community. If we think of offices as places where we collaborate and create community, we probably wouldn’t design them as lines of desks (factory optimised for maximum number of backsides on seats).
Offices are also now effectively competing with other work locations as a choice for employees – including both the home, and local co-working spaces (or ‘coffices’, as I like to call them). As a result, office spaces need to become as agile and flexible as the people in them.
3. We can’t rely on time and presence as good measures of productivity.
Hours worked are relatively easy to gauge but make very little sense when we aren’t clocking on and clocking off. Similarly, being present doesn’t necessarily equate to being productive.
Knowledge workers are especially hard to measure. Many of us now have a workday that looks a bit like “time confetti”, as we juggle the blurring effects of work/home boundaries. It’s easy for us mistake activity for productivity, or feel guilty for taking a break. The temptation is to work longer – but this tends to lead to burnout, rather than improved productivity.
Since the measurable, predictable aspects of our jobs are most likely to be automated in the future, it’s probably time to reconsider how to measure the unique value of being human. That value often lies in the connections we make and the ideas we have, rather than how long we sit in front of our computers/in an office.
4. Analogue ways of working may not translate well into the digital world.
The best example of this is meetings. Meetings may not be the most productive way of doing work and, in the digital world, they become frictionless to schedule. This results in us getting up every morning with an impending sense of Zoom, as we embark on a solid back-to-back day of meetings.
What we haven’t done is question whether a meeting is the best way of doing things. Lessons from remote first companies show that much of their daily business is conducted asynchronously (using tools like chat, shared spaces and email), before they even contemplate getting together for a meeting. This enables them to more effectively schedule their day without becoming a slave to 30- and 60-minute time boxes.
Out of the ashes of the pandemic may rise a very different breed of work, capturing the best of both real and digital worlds, rather than a horrible hybrid. But to reinvent work, we need to start by reinventing work.