COVID-19 in early 2020 set in motion one of the largest and most disruptive changes to the workplace in recent modern history. When the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, in March 2020, this set-in motion one of the biggest and most disorderly structural changes to the workplace in recent history as the world of work underwent a shift from office-based employment to homeworking, this meant Working from Home (WFH). This turbo change from office work to home working created organizational damage — the “new normal”.
What Are the Main Challenges?
The future of work – or to be more prescient the workplace – has taken up a lot of column inches over the course of the last 18 months.
The pandemic has caused an acceleration of changing trends within the workplace experience. This radical shift has fixated a spotlight on key areas of change and the organizational and/or structural impediments to change. The pre-pandemic argument that radical change would take years, or decades even, has been disproved. Coronavirus has changed everything.
According to the Harvard Business Review, COVID-19 is:
This echoes Deloitte who have argued that the pandemic has acted like “a time machine to the future.” Bain & Co articulate how COVID-19 has allowed businesses the opportunity to “set stage for retooling the business for a different future.”
The bigger structural changes surround the “homeworking revolution” that has allowed employees to work from home. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2020, nearly 50% of employers in the UK reported working from home.
However, these trends highlight issues from confidentiality and governance to more structural issues around unreliable WIFI or internet access. There are other issues with this growing trend – for example employees working more than their contracted hours, not sleeping well and unable to get the right work/life balance.
However there is a paradox in the midst of remote working – in that 71% of UK businesses are driving ahead and ramping up remote working for employees whilst simultaneously research also notes that 82% of managers are “concerned” about employee productivity levels.
Therefore, the greatest challenges business face surround balancing employee trust with the deployment of the right technology along with understanding individual employee situations. Balancing this triumvirate of competing pressures can provide a gateway to remote working success.
How Are Organizations Adapting to Change?
More and more businesses have discovered the many benefits of a so-called “hybrid virtual” workplace model. This organizational structure allows a majority to work from home whilst maintaining a minority who perhaps cannot perform their role at home to work on-site. The benefits are numerous – from lower costs, smaller teams, greater productivity, and individual work-life flexibility along with improved employer/employee collaborative experiences.
However, historically, creating a hybrid of home working and on-site working has resulted in failure. In pre-pandemic years, both HP and YAHOO! Suspended remote working trials. YAHOO!, for example, found the experience broke up teams and organizational cultural homogeneity. However, in these trials the downsides of the experience outweighed the positives.
According to McKinsey & Company, in pre-pandemic times, the “organizational norms that underpin culture and performance – ways of working, as well as standards of behaviour and interaction – that help create a common culture, generate social cohesion, and build shared trust” were evident in these trials.
However, it would be fair to say that trials between 2010-2015 occurred in the singular experience of an individual corporation. When millions of businesses do the same thing, when it is mandated by the Government, and backed up by rapid technological change this experience becomes manifestly more adaptable.
For example, according to the BBC, 43 of the biggest employers in the UK have stated they do not intend to bring the entirety of their staff back to their office sites once restrictions are lifted. Most of these companies plan to “embrace a mix of home and office working with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week.”
WPP, the advertising giant, goes further; “we’re never going to go back to working the way we used to work. But the new way of using the office require careful planning. People are working from home three to four days a week, so we probably need 20% less space, but we’re not going to do that if everyone’s working from home on a Mondays and Fridays.”
Aviva, the insurance giant, similarly outlines a “flexible” approach which is based on 95% of the company’s workforce wanting flexibility and remote working. However, the company also noted that organisations need to be mindful to the individual circumstances of their employees – for example employees who live alone and the mental health issues therein along with those staff members who do not have suitable home working environments. Getting this balance right is why many companies are placing this “new normal” WFH experience on constant review – to help make sure it is what is best for both their company and their employees wellbeing.
Further research has identified a new trend whereby businesses are utilising this growth in remote working to help identify and “re-examine” the way work processes are completed and delivered within organisations. This has been done by “deconstructing jobs into ‘component tasks’”. This has empowered businesses to examine their business processes and to help pinpoint ways of delivering ‘component tasks’ through remote work in a more productive way.
A New Social Contract Being Threatened Due to Digital Innovation & New Needed Ways of Working
Deloitte found in their 2018 Global Human Capital Trends Report that the rise of the “social enterprise” created a large shift in corporate structures built upon the the integral tenants social capital has on shaping an organization’s purpose. The study also found that:
Organizations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organizations today are increasingly judged on the basis of their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large—transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.
Harnessing relationships across external and internal stakeholders is becoming a challenge for the online office as working in silos can prove difficult where impersonal engagement is key which also assist when attracting, retaining, and upskilling critical workers.
The movement of various organizations toward a “network of teams” operating model that seeks to enable greater collaboration and internal agility is now complimented by the growing shift from an internal, enterprise focus to an external, ecosystem one (figure 1 above). Organizations that “get it” are on the cutting edge and encompass the our the Deloitte “social enterprise” known as “an organization that is alert enough to sense, and responsive enough to accommodate, the gamut of stakeholder expectations and demands”.
Post-pandemic trends suggests that purpose “embeds meaning into every aspect of work every day”.
The social enterprise really embodies a “new social contract” that calls for a more human-centered approach to relationships between the individual (employee) and an organization and the organization and society.
New technologies and rapid digital transformations took over the themes across boardrooms this year, although:
COVID-19 has reinforced our conviction that human concerns are not separate from technological advances at all, but integral for organizations looking to capture the full value of the technologies they’ve put in place. Deloitte
Zoom is Here to Stay
Adapting to the post-pandemic future of work requires business organizations to understand processes in a way that moves from linear or structural ‘office-based’ delivery of work role components. This means businesses need to better understand the way they do business; it also requires a major investment in digital platforms to help improve communications and create a digital working culture. Finally, the future of work looks to offer a “hybrid” experience of remote working and on-site collaboration. However, employee productivity, the on/off-site daily distribution along with other pressure points could force employers to return to the traditional office-based experience. The Covid-19 shift has indicated that resilience-employee-investment is key – in that, understanding what workers are capable of doing rather than understanding what they are not. Perhaps the worst time for organizations to pull back on workforce development but a time to build out resilience infrastructure and tools (a resilient workforce that is or can be upskilled) to act as a robust army against any future hiccups and navigate the fluidity of the market and future of disruptive models of work.