Imagining the 'post-pandemic' workplace
For many of us in a traditional office-based role one of the most commonly heard phrases in recent weeks will have been “are you back in the office yet?” According to a recent ONS survey, the proportion of the UK employed population who did some form of work at home rose to 36% in 2020 – up by almost a third.
More interesting is a survey from Deloitte which highlights that although nearly one in four workers would entertain the prospect of never working from the office again, nearly one third are ‘desperate’ to get back to the office.So how do we possibly navigate such a polarised workplace in coming months and years?
We asked university academics and experts in human resources Simona Spedale and Aditya Jain, our NUBS go-to on all things career-related Terri Simpkin and - to get some insight from the office floor - alumnus and Chairman of PwC, Kevin Ellis.
‘Back to normal’: An unhelpful myth?
Perhaps the most striking feature characterising the workplace in the past year is how quickly working patterns and practices have had to shift and change, and the scale of this adaptation across all sectors and types of organisations. Employees and managers alike have had to adapt to technology-mediated working practices, coping with the challenges of remote communication, teamwork and leadership while striving to support employee wellbeing and maintain work-life balance.
With lockdown easing and the prospect of a progressive return to face-to-face social interactions, the mantra of returning to ‘some sort of normal’ at work is spreading fast. Is this idea helpful? While recognising its positive psychological connotation, we rather controversially argue that it is not. More to the point, we suggest that the notion of ‘back to normal’ is in fact counter-productive as it masks and underplays the size of the changes – and challenges – that the world of work was, is and will be facing.
These include major demographic, environmental and technological changes; the growth of economic, social and health inequalities; and, relatedly, the persistence of discrimination across gender, race, ethnicity, class, and geography that hinders inclusion and fairness in the workplace. This list is not exhaustive, but it corroborates our main argument that managers and employers should not regard covid-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that punctuated a stable world of work – a world that will recover its equilibrium once lockdown restrictions are over.
Instead, we wish to encourage them to consider the pandemic as both a magnifier and an accelerator of wider and longer-term dynamics that are multi-faceted and far more complex to deal with than a simple reverting to normality implies. All the changes and challenges highlighted above existed pre-covid-19 and, if anything, have been compounded by it.
Pros and cons of a ‘digital workplace’
There is consensus in academic and policy circles that the digitalisation of work impacts the quality of work and employment in organisations across all sectors and in all regions of the world. There is also consensus that the covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of digitalisation, compounding some of its effects. Current evidence clearly suggests that digitalisation can be both an opportunity and a threat.
On the positive side, it promotes growing autonomy for individual workers – for example, by increasing flexibility concerning time and location of work. On the other hand, advancements in technology also mean intrusive surveillance, the blurring of work-life boundaries, and increased loneliness at work. New forms of work and employment have also intensified trends towards novel kinds of dependency and precarious jobs as well as insecurity. Digitalisation therefore opens the door to increasing challenges relating to the health, safety, and well-being (HSW) of the workforce. At same time, it also offers new opportunities to reduce some HSW risks or better manage them, fostering improvements in job quality and promoting a positive psychosocial work environment.
Addressing the true challenges of the workplace
Our view is that the mantra of ‘back to normal’ – however reassuring it might sound on the surface – is unhelpful and fundamentally distracts from the real long-term challenges that the world of work needs to address with urgency. Academia has a critical and important role to play in helping managers and employers tackle these challenges.
This is the mission that the Work, Employment and Organisation (WEORG) research community hosted by the Organisational Behaviour and HRM Department at NUBS has set for itself. We want to engage with employees, employers, managers, HRM professionals, policy makers and the different organisations comprising the workplace ecosystem to co-produce impactful research, deliver world-class learning opportunities, and co-develop tailored solutions to shape a better, fairer and more resilient world of work.
Our advice to managers and employers for the post-Covid-19 period is to abandon the false comfort of normality and to proactively look forward for new and creative solutions to the real and pressing challenge of long-term changes that are multi-faceted, systemic, and fundamentally interconnected.
Dr Simona Spedale, Associate Professor and OB/HRM Department Research Director
Dr Aditya Jain, Associate Professor and Head of Department, OB/HRM
Office insight: PwC
Kevin Ellis, Chairman, PwC receiving his Alumni Laureate Award in 2019
We have kept our approach to offices in line with government guidelines throughout the pandemic. Since April when the stay at home order was lifted, access to our offices was widened once again on a voluntary basis, keeping in place any necessary safety measures. We knew how important it is for our people to have the option of the office based on our experiences last summer. We sought to reopen them to all our people, as soon as we could do so safely.
As a people business, the office is fundamental to our business model but will continue to evolve as working patterns change. There’s a lot of debate about ‘home vs office’, but in my view I think it’s simplistic to pit the two against another. While working from home means less time commuting and more time to spend on other pursuits, there are many benefits to the office that our people miss too.
Within the UK, our research suggests that while continuous homeworking would benefit smaller towns and suburbs, the economy as a whole would take a hit due to the impact on bigger cities.
Research last summer found that a shift to home working would cost the economy around £15bn per year, equivalent to around 1% of GDP, with much of the dent due to the knock-on effect on the communities who depend on office-workers for their livelihoods. That assumed, however, people were working from home full time rather than a hybrid pattern.
The impact on a young workforce
At PwC, the average age of our people is 31, many of whom are living in flat shares or environments not well-suited to home-working. We know that the office is a great place to build networks and learn from colleagues - the virtual world can only do so much in this regard. Rather therefore than considering which wins out of office and home, I think it’s important that we look at all of the advantages and embrace a hybrid way of working in order to maximise the benefits of both.
Younger workers, in particular those who are just starting out in their careers, really value the opportunity to learn from their colleagues and work face to face, especially in a people business like ours. I’m very conscious many of our new joiners won’t have stepped foot into one of our offices yet and I’m keen to ensure they get more opportunities to build their networks and learn from others. It's crucial that the generation starting their careers during the pandemic are not disadvantaged over the longer term - this is a key factor in why the hybrid model of working is the most likely going forward.
Bringing soft skills to the fore
The pandemic has brought soft skills to the fore for all of us. People skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, have been central to my leadership throughout the pandemic. Indeed, my communications with staff have probably increased tenfold, ranging from virtual town halls, webcasts with mental health experts, to voice messages and media interviews. Being able to ‘walk the floors’, albeit remotely, has been an important way for me to support our people, and notably our people's engagement with our communications has been at a record high.
While the importance of soft skills can’t be overemphasised, however, it’s equally important to remain committed to enhancing our hard skills and development too, all of which help us to support our clients. As with most things, a mix of both is best! We’ve seen how quickly jobs and business needs can change, so adaptability will continue to be one of the most important skills. Employees will need to continuously upskill and reskill as the world of work evolves.
Kevin Ellis, Chairman and Senior Partner, PwC
Facing up to the bigger questions around remote working
Emerging research illustrates that a move to a hybrid mode of working as ‘new business as normal’ must be more fully and carefully considered than it was when working from somewhere other than the workplace was an initial covid-19 crisis response. While the pandemic has certainly amplified arguments for reimagining the way work is done, where it is done and who is doing the work, the need for deeper, more action oriented recalibration of workplace structures and leadership is required.
Indeed, a more circumspect reimagining of how our workplaces could operate is demanded. What’s now expected of people, their leaders and perhaps society as a whole? How must we manage our professional endeavours as we re-examine how work fits into, and perhaps around, the rest of our lives as we tentatively emerge from the covid-19 crisis and into a ‘revised business as usual’?
Productivity & flexibility vs risk
High profile organisations such as IBM, PwC and Salesforce have announced that they’re introducing policies to provide options for staff to work from anywhere (WFA), with Spotify offering their workforce the option to use the office as a base for some of their week (‘office mix’) or a ‘home mix’ where people will drop in occasionally as needed. While this looks quite progressive on the face of it, the flipside needs to be taken into consideration too.
Working in environments that are not designed for work can deliver health, safety and wellbeing risks that may have been secondary to pandemic responses, but as this way of working becomes mainstream, leaders must recognise and take seriously their obligations to keep their people safe.
Compounding barriers to inclusion
Deeper insights are also emerging that illustrate that the sense of disconnection from the informal in-person social interaction associated with working with colleagues is contributing to higher levels of stress and burnout. People from minority backgrounds and women experience greater fear about the security of their work and are less likely to ask for help when they need it. For example, research illustrates that black women are less likely to be ‘visible’ in the workplace and a lack of attention paid to requests for assistance may be exacerbated by off-site working.
Of course, these issues compound existing workplace inequalities present prior to the pandemic. While many reports clearly identify that women have been disproportionately impacted by working from home, the pre-pandemic reticence of men to ask for flexibility to accommodate family responsibilities is also being intensified.
What to do?
There is a surfeit of hints, tips and advice currently being published and it is incumbent on leaders to navigate their way through that to find contextually appropriate responses for their people and their operations. However, at the most basic level, trust in leaders to do the right thing, to communicate well and with transparency and to be active in diminishing inequities (be they legacy or emerging) is key to building a culture that can weather the storms associated with a disrupted business as usual.
Recent work by McKinsey found that in practice this may take the form of more frequent, better quality messaging that provides a transparent view of the future, even if uncertain. The work highlights that employee wellbeing and productivity improved when leaders made clear their values, policies and expectations regarding support, productivity and inclusion agenda.
Above all however, trust may never have been more important as social capital for a leader. Indeed, Deloitte has found that leaders who have accumulated trust prior to the pandemic across different dimensions such as physical, (e.g. trust that the workplace is safe) emotional (safeguarding of emotional and societal needs), financial (e.g. financial concerns are known and addressed) and digital (e.g. security of information) and will find themselves in a position to better engage stakeholders - especially staff and colleagues.
As leaders navigate their people, organisations and stakeholders out of crisis mode into a revised workplace landscape, the notions of equity, trust and transparency are fundamentally imperative to a ‘better business as usual.’
Dr Terri Simpkin - Associate Professor (Teaching), Head of MBA Programmes (International) & Director, Executive MBA & Senior Leadership Degree Apprenticeship