Are we in the midst of a work revolution? Or are we experiencing an evolution, a chance to bridge new ways of working with efforts to redress issues and inequalities to ensure work works for all?
Words: Faye Haslam (History, 2012)
Little did I expect that I would be writing this article from my new home office…aka the kitchen table. In a matter of months, our working lives have been transformed by the pandemic, as many of us became remote workers almost overnight, navigating a new landscape of virtual meetings and video calls. During the height of the lockdown, figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that almost 50% of all workers in the UK worked from home, while among ‘white collar’ occupations that number rose to almost 70%. And there is every indication that this trend is set to continue, and accelerate. Major companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Fujitsu have already announced moves to make working from home a permanent option (with more expected to follow suit), while a report by researchers at Cardiff and Southampton universities suggests as many as 9 in 10 people who worked from home during the lockdown would like to continue in some form. So, are we in the midst of a work revolution? Or is this an evolution, a chance to bridge new ways of working with efforts to redress issues and inequalities to ensure work works for all? There are a number of key facets that companies will need to consider as they re-imagine the post-pandemic workplace. Global management consultancy McKinsey has stated that the post-pandemic organisation will take shape along three dimensions – who we are; how we operate; how we grow. I wanted to explore these three areas in more depth to uncover what challenges and opportunities lie ahead, for employees and employers alike, so I turned to our experts to delve into the new future of work.
How we operate
So, first, let’s consider how we operate. It’s easy to overstate the death of the office – after months of restrictions many of us are yearning for a chance to connect with colleagues without a screen – but the pandemic has resulted in a shift in what we thought possible and challenged prevailing notions of what work looks like. Gone are the days of 40-hour working weeks in the office, likely to be replaced by something much more flexible.
“If organisations and employees can see the mutual productivity benefits of working from home, I think it will lead to systemic change in working practices,” says Andrew Sharp (Geography, 2005), Head of Early Talent at Mars. “You definitely have more freedom across your working day, with fewer office distractions, meaning that you often find you can get more done, and at a time that works better for you.”
“Working from home can be really good for just getting business done,” agrees Professor Todd Landman, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Social Sciences. “It’s definitely time efficient. Meetings that would take two hours now take one, and it can also open up new opportunities to meet colleagues because they don’t have to physically come to a meeting. The efficiency and immediacy of the medium allows me to reach out to more people than I have been able to before.
“The flexibility also means we can be much more outcomes and output focused through technology rather than face time presenteeism. The whole notion of being in the office totally shifts. It’s not about punching a clock or having to be seated at your desk, but about being present in terms of the tasks that have been set for you. But these advantages are a function of your personal circumstances and this is where we get into the disadvantages.”
Indeed, the benefits of working from home can only be unlocked through access to the technologies that make it possible. And this is where we start to get into interesting considerations for our future relationship to technology.
“Being able to work from home is predicated first on very good infrastructure,” explains Todd. “You need fast broadband that works well, and that cost is now being borne by the member of staff. Internet services are not being provided because it’s assumed you have it. Covid-19 has raised the disproportionality of experience to high relief because it suddenly thrust everyone back into their homes, and it made them reliant on whatever infrastructure they had before. It really does show the stark differences in experience that people have.
“I could imagine a digital justice movement forming. If individuals are going to be more reliant on technology than ever before, is digital access in the category of a fundamental human right? We joke when we put Wi-Fi alongside food in our hierarchy of needs, but if you think about it, it’s not that crazy. Whether you are paying your bills, the weekly shop, doing your job, the one thing you now need is Wi-Fi. There is a real, fundamental need for high quality technology. So, I think this idea might build. What’s the fundamental basic provision of digital resource that anyone could expect? This could also be important to break down some of the class and income barriers to access of information.”
As organisations orientate towards flexible, remote workplaces, overcoming technological barriers is one concern. But another is the need to balance the ability to work from home against the wellbeing interests of staff being asked to restructure how and where their work takes place. The collision between our working and home lives during the pandemic is well documented – juggling caring responsibilities, keeping on top of the housework, staying in touch with family and friends, spending hours and hours in meetings and calls – the imperceptible feeling of ‘living at work’. And there are indications that this balancing act between professional and domestic spheres is landing disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Indeed, the United Nations has highlighted the impact of Covid-19 on women globally and warned that years’ worth of progress on women’s empowerment could be lost to the pandemic.
Professor Tracey Warren in the Nottingham University Business School is leading a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19, and run in partnership with Professor Clare Lyonette at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and the Women’s Budget Group to examine the impact of the pandemic on the burden of work on women, especially working-class women, in the UK.
“We’ve heard a lot in the press about men spending more time at home during the pandemic, but also that women are bearing the brunt of childcare and domestic work. While there was the possibility that parents could share paid work and care more equally as a result of both working from home, our study shows that this was not the reality for most UK households. Our analysis of data gathered in June from 14,123 participants shows far more women than men were doing the cooking, cleaning, washing/ironing and grocery shopping during lockdown. 70% of women reported being the main person in the home doing the washing/ironing, compared to 13% of men. Only a minority of mothers, 19%, said that, after the schools were closed, home-schooling was shared equally with their partner. Instead, 63% of women and only 9% of men said that responsibility for home-schooling was ‘always/usually me’.
“Data being collected in the study will show us whether the pandemic – and the different ways people are working as a result – is likely to make longer-term differences to gender equality. If women’s careers are negatively affected as a result of efforts to juggle work and childcare, this could suggest a widening of existing gender gaps.”
In establishing how we operate in future, organisations must therefore consider both creating the infrastructure to facilitate remote working but also to ensure this new way of working does not intensify workloads, both ‘in the office’ and at home.
“There is a tendency for flexible working to be seen as a ‘women’s issue’, in order to allow them to combine work with childcare and domestic tasks,” continues Tracey and Clare. “These misperceptions can be detrimental to women’s career progression over the longer-term and contribute to the persistence of ‘traditional’ gender roles.
“Flexible working needs to be considered by employers as a gender-neutral opportunity, and managers should be trained to consider flexible working requests and to discuss with team members how this could work for all. Senior staff, both male and female, can act as role models by working flexibly, showing that it can work and signalling a positive workplace culture. Unless men also work from home where possible, and provide some of the childcare and domestic work required within households, women will continue to be disadvantaged.”
Who we are
Just as important, if not arguably more so, as how our workplaces operate is the need for organisations to establish who they are and what they stand for. After all, a positive leadership and workplace culture can mean the difference between success or failure of an organisation. And this will intensify with signs that our expectations of how our leaders, and organisations, should operate are changing.
“Our notions around leadership and management have started to shift,” says Associate Professor Terri Simpkin in the Nottingham University Business School. “The traditional characteristics of charismatic leadership, which might have been outwardly attractive, are now being criticised for being a bit hollow now that we’re stacking them up against competence and capability. The poster child for this is Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s strong, she’s decisive, she’s very capable as an operator, but she’s also approachable, shows compassion and has been steadfast in a number of difficult situations. While people might suggest this approach is gender-based, it really isn’t, it’s a human-based issue. If you come to leadership with care and compassion, and use values as an anchor for decision making, that’s more important than bluster or hollow words. Resilience for organisations doesn’t come through systems and process and bureaucracy in times of crisis or rapid change, it comes from people being willing to follow leaders who are trusted, are trustworthy and who are able to define a vision that their decisions actually follow.”
How organisations respond not only to new ways of working but an evolution of the relationship between employees and employers is not just an issue of internal management culture. Paying greater attention to how staff are recognised, understood and listened to could have a bearing on attracting future talent to the organisation.
“Employees have always sought out organisations that act with care and mutual respect from their employees,” says Andrew. “This need has been magnified through the pandemic and it will be the organisations that can truly empathise and show some flexibility in these times of real ambiguity that will stand out. It’s really important that organisations listen to their employees. At Mars, we are using forums to understand what is working for staff and what is not. This will help inform our future approach. I think this will be a key differentiator when it comes to attracting talent into organisations in the future. People will not forget those organisations that put their employees at the heart of their decision making and acted in a principled way.”
How we grow
It’s difficult, in the midst of a pandemic, to look beyond the immediate priorities of keeping workplaces functioning, and into the long-term growth of an organisation. Indeed, what does growth mean or look like in a post-pandemic world? But, in a year that has been defined not only by the pandemic but global demonstrations for equality, a case can be made that it’s time for organisations to use this moment of recalibration to create real, lasting, change.
“There’s been this narrative of continual growth, that organisations need to have more profit, more customers, more products,” says Terri. “A global economy resting on this idea that we will have infinite growth. And of course, that’s entirely not possible. So maybe we need to reset and give organisations an opportunity to consider what they do and how they do it.
“Rushing back to business as usual would be a waste of an opportunity to rethink. One thing that has come out of the pandemic is that we can’t take for granted that our own experience is shared across the broader community. Issues around inclusion have been there for a long time but there’s been a magnifying glass put on it. Once we start navigating into the ‘new normal’, greater opportunity has to be provided to those who have previously been locked out because of gender, cultural or social background, sexual preference, disability, neurodiversity. And for organisations to not just have diversity, but to hear their voices and take their experiences on board when looking at how they operate.
“Of course, this brings status quo challenging ideas and it’s this, that innovation, which is the capacity to leverage what’s coming out of the consequences of the pandemic. It’s the harnessing of those different ideas, those different experiences, that’s actually going to provide real value to organisations moving forwards. Organisations that truly embed inclusion, and understand why people work for them, are the ones that will enjoy disproportionate success.”
After exploring our post-pandemic working lives through the lens of operations and technology, workplace culture, and equality and inclusion, it feels we are in the middle of a conversation that is both old and new, as we work out how to address long-standing issues in a world transformed by the pandemic.
“I think the opportunity really is to revisit and recognise those big questions that have been kicked down the road but we can no longer ignore,” says Terri. “How are we going to embed new notions of work with digital advancements? How are we going to expand opportunities to those people who have been locked out of the privilege we might have had? How are we going to better meld the responsibilities and the interests of people outside work? The opportunity is to look much more critically and really with some clarity for solutions to the questions that have been on the cards for a long time.”
So maybe the future of work isn’t completely new after all. It’s time to find some new truths to old questions.