You would have to have been a hermit not to see that COVID has had significant impact on the way we work worldwide. In Australia, with constant rolling lockdowns, we are experiencing it firsthand. Working from home, juggling home schooling the kids (check out our giveaway to help with that!) and taking online shopping orders in the middle of Zoom meetings, life has changed. So, have we entered a new age of work? Is the New Workplace Paradigm already here?
DRN was fortunate enough to be invited to EPOS’ Global Media Day back in June 2021, a virtual event showcasing the latest in audio innovation from EPOS Enterprises. One of the key focus topics of the event was the future of the work environment, with new workplace paradigm and technologies.
I am writing this as all of Victoria and New South Wales is in extended lockdown — with restrictions on how far you can go and who you can see, childcare closed unless you are an essential worker, limits as to what shops can open and curfews as well — as the COVID Delta variant has escaped into the community and taken hold. I am in Day 29 of Lockdown 6.2 here in Melbourne so I feel your pain. It is a good time to share the discussions from far brighter minds than mine.
My new workplace may not be so different, but it is for others!
Before I go there though, I have some thoughts to share from my own experiences in the workforce.
For much of my career to date I have worked as a gun-for-hire, a client facing resource that is airdropped on a customer site to do whatever they can’t do themselves. This allows me to largely stay out of the local politics, but also allows me perspective on hundreds, if not thousands, of workplaces over the past 24 odd years.
Looking back I can clearly see how some career choices were less than ideal. Others on the surface were questionable but had merits in the long game. The main one that comes to mind was a company that I gave everything for, and eventually walked away from after an agonising period of doubt. The root cause analysis, over a decade later, was that I allowed my personal life to blind me to what was happening at work, and vice versa. As much as one should “leave work at work”, this is rarely possible, even before COVID. To be fair, since the arrival of the Blackberry (remember them?), work has been steadily encroached on personal time.
Now, with weeks and months of lockdown and working from home (I’m clocking up almost 21 months of WFH myself), the enmeshed relationship of work and home has consequences that few would have considered. Especially now with home schooling and the like in the mix, the lines of work become more blurred and it becomes harder to leave anything behind as the home becomes the new workplace.
It almost leaves us asking: Does work ever end?
What do the experts say the new workplace looks like?
Why did I ramble on about my work history? Because there were some very interesting and relevant thoughts raised in a panel discussion about “The Future of Work” co-chaired by:
- Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, Alliance Manchester Business School, Uni of Manchester
- Marta Vilella-Vila, Client Partner at Foresight Factory
- Torben Christiansen, Director of Technology at EPOS
The consensus is that the hybrid model is emerging across work and other sectors, and inequality is a rising trend. There is a societal disparity with a growing division between those who can, and those who can’t, work from home.
Generally white collar higher educated people are embracing the work from home model. However, work life balance has taken a significant hit. It is getting worse during the pandemic lockdowns. Speaking to those on the DRN team, some who are now substantially working from home are finding themselves working late at night, struggling to switch off, and falling behind on their review deadlines.
Regardless it is clear that the old model of large office footprints, rows of desks filled with bodies toiling away between core hours, is gone. Why do we need an office when the home is the new workplace? So, for now these large office buildings are still sitting there, empty… and awaiting their fate silently.
Will things continue to evolve?
Back in the mid-2000s, I was contracting to a multi-national company. Being on-call after hours meant I had remote access to all the client sites and there was some leeway to work from home during core hours. But always drummed into the back of our minds was, if you can work from home, you can work from Bangladesh. The warning was crystal clear; if you are not seen in the office then your job can easily be off-shored where labour is cheap. As it was my entire division was off-shored to Malaysia and Bratislavia, the latter being a country I didn’t even know existed until that point in time.
But now globally we have had a taste at the WFH smorgasbord and Pandora’s Box has opened. Employers who have traditionally resisted flexibility (yes, they still exist!) were left without a choice at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Employees have been forced to work from home, with stay at home orders (and flexibly with kids home schooling in the background), when it’s never been a consideration or preference before COVID.
The more progressive employers are negotiating with individuals to determine their individual needs. Instead of paying lip service as they have for decades that “employees are our most valuable resources”, the COVID pandemic is finally the tipping point that Human Resources have been called to action.
Hybrid is the new workplace!
Professor Sir Cary Cooper is of the opinion that the hybrid work model is the future. It is now a strategic issue that will define employers as clearly as Homo Sapiens are from Dryopithecus. Each step is a piece of a puzzle, required to be tweaked to fulfill the social needs.
As the world is pushing to rebound from the pandemic, new research from EPOS reveals a huge disparity about the return to office between decision makers and employees. As the panel at the EPOS Virtual Media Event has said, hybrid working patterns are taking shape and the conversations are happening.
Decision makers are anticipating the advantages of a genuinely hybrid model for the workplace. Yet there are notable divergences between the expectations of decision makers and employees in regarding the return to work across all segments.
Globally 56% of decision makers expect an increase in employee time spent in office “boots on deck”. This is compared with employee expectations at just 26%. The numbers vary by region but the US leads with the largest gap, with 74% of decision makers and 29% of employees.
So, what’s next?
Savvy employees and employers need to hunt for middle ground balance. Each employee needs to be approached, have their individual needs identified and a plan formulated to meet those needs. As an example, a graduate would need more exposure in person with a mentor to build knowledge, but experienced staff may be able to pump through the work from home with fewer distractions.
The big jigsaw now is about creating cultures where people are motivated to come into the office. You know, without the offer of a free morning tea. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still the basis for all the pieces of the puzzle to come together. Everybody has basic needs, psychological needs and self-fulfilment needs. The challenge is how to maintain this balance in a hybrid work environment.
Flexi-place and flexi-time is the elephant in many rooms. It is proven beyond doubt that it is possible to be far more productive and work more efficiently from home. A shift to outcomes based goals, rather than on the sitting at an office desk between core hours for eight hours, is gaining traction. And, let’s face it, working from home has plenty of positives. For many people, the removal of the commute is a huge timesaver. This can lead to better exercise routines, quality time spent with family, and can also add an ability to maintain better diet (both during and after work hours).
The traditional lines of promotion based on experience, seniority, age, competency is a death trap. I have seen so many rise and fall, because workplaces fail to foster the one quality that managers must have: emotional quotient/intelligence.
The future is Now!
As a former manager, one of the benefits of all hands on deck in an office was to ability to “check the rabbit traps”. I had a routine of walking through the office floors so I can be seen and talk to people at their desks, rather than wait for them to come to me. For the latter I kept a jar of giant sized Smarties on my desk as a honeypot too. By being visible to people, or have a reason for someone to swing past my desk, I am far more likely to have a conversation that gleans more information that I would not otherwise have received. But in this new paradigm, a phone call becomes a formal request and changes the dynamics.
The future of businesses is to promote leaders who have parity between technical and people skills. That is, to have high EQ. Those with the ability to pick up non-verbal cues should be more valued in this virtual world; but adaptation is needed when the lack of face-to-face, or rather mask-to-mask, interactions hampers the established communication process.
The future of the workplace will be reimagined, with greater potential for inequality, but also a greater social divide. The hybrid model is not for everyone or for one person all the time. The challenge is how to best work with the brave new world ushered in by COVID.
The consensus of the panel is flexibility, management and a focus of wellbeing. Technology is a facilitator, it connects people as much as it divides. But people will remain the key to conquering this COVID-restricted world.