Looking ahead – The future of work
As part of our looking ahead series, Andrew Griggs looks to a post COVID-19 world and discusses the future of work.
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way most of us work. And whilst it has been a change driven by necessity, it will have far-reaching and long-lasting implications on both the way we work and where we work.
The workplace – and in this article I refer primarily to the office – has always changed and evolved to reflect employee and employer needs, management thinking, and new technologies. The past decade has seen a shift towards a more agile workplace. Coronavirus has accelerated this.
Self-resilience and independence
One of my immediate observations following the lockdown in March is that people are far more self-resilient than perhaps anyone would have imagined. Individuals have grown in confidence and are keen to demonstrate how best to work and take greater responsibility. We are becoming more independent and have largely welcomed that independence.
Yes, it has been hard for some members of the office environment who may need greater levels of supervision. And, yes, many of us miss the connections, discussions, friendships, and, indeed, the routine of the office environment. That will return.
Businesses will look to their lockdown experiences and seek to capture and harness those positive experiences. They will also learn from what hasn’t worked as well.
Agile working here to stay
One welcome change I expect to see is the flattening of traditional office hierarchies, with dynamic teams taking more prominence. Agile working will remain, and employers may find it hard to ignore reasonable requests to work from home. Those dynamic teams will function well with members meeting both virtually and physically.
A major change will be the demand from staff for a greater choice in how they work.
Some will want to come into the office every day, others will not. Some will choose to mix their working week between home and the office. Employers will, I believe, work hard to satisfy and equip staff to make this change.
This will naturally create challenges for managers and supervisors. The answer will perhaps lie in the creation of teams within teams – no more than eight to ten people combining local hygiene and business needs – that will allow the validation, the need to belong and the rewards and recognition employees look for day-to-day. Those teams may evolve naturally or may need to be created, with members looking out for each other.
Communication throughout the lockdown has been enhanced, with many of us using Microsoft Teams and Zoom for the first time and quickly embracing them. Virtual coffees, quiz nights and even drinks are commonplace. Whilst virtual drinks might quickly be replaced with the real thing, these habits will remain and become part of the everyday work pattern.
They will prove particularly valuable for those working in multi-sited offices, removing the need for physical catchups and the travel that involves. People will question how their time is used, with face-to-face time becoming a more valued and powerful commodity.
Yet, employers will need to continue to take their responsibility to staff seriously. Conversely, whilst many employers may have worried about staff working from home taking their responsibilities lightly. I often hear reports from those working from home that they are in fact working longer and more intensely, tied to their laptops or video calls without the natural breaks the office environment creates. It can be physically and emotionally draining, and employers will need to encourage a whole new set of good working practices.
The office is dead, long live the office
The demise of the office has been long predicted yet it remains a mainstay of our cities and towns. COVID-19 has reignited the idea that the office is now dead. I am not so sure.
Early in the lockdown, businesses naturally asked whether they needed their office footprints. A building on a long lease sitting empty is not an attractive option.
Now, as we begin to emerge into a post COVID-19 world, businesses realise that office space will still be needed but likely to be used in very different ways.
Businesses will of course look long and hard at their office requirement and, importantly, what they and their staff need and want from that office space.
I believe office interiors will change. They will need to accommodate those that wish to work there every day, but also for those who choose to work from the office for just two or three days a week. Smaller desks and less space may be needed. The office may become a central meeting point for employees, clients and customers rather than a workstation with more focus on appearance, meeting room space and technology. The purpose of the office is changing, with COVID-19 adding further momentum.
A word of caution
Many workplaces combine both the office and shop floor.
There is a very real risk of employers inadvertently creating a two-tier workforce, where shop floor staff have no choice but to come into work every day with others enjoying greater flexibility.
The future of work is likely to be very different, blending commercial and customer needs with those of its people and using technology to provide efficient and effective solutions, but it will still leave management teams facing many challenges. Businesses will be facing these challenges together and business advisers will be on hand to help their clients.
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