What does the future of work look like?
What does the future of work look like? This question has been on the minds of many people since the start of the pandemic. Will we go back to the office, or will we learn from the earlier periods during the pandemic and keep the hybrid office model? What is the role of technology in the new world of work? How do we create and sustain a sense of connection and belonging in the hybrid workplace?
While the economy reopens step by step, it doesn't necessarily mean you nor your employees want to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. With plenty of time to adapt to working remotely and discovering the benefits, more and more businesses are embracing a hybrid work style. By adopting new technology, reshaping work culture, and adapting your leadership style, you can settle into a new normal going forward.
Respondents around the globe have indicated in several surveys that they would prefer hybrid models of remote working to stay. Covid-19 has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where our work takes place. In our industry, with highly skilled and highly educated workers, research shows that more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. Accounting, tax and advisory services have a high potential, with 50-75% of time spent on activities that can be done remotely without a loss of productivity.
Some 41% of employees who responded to a McKinsey survey in May said they were more productive working remotely than in the office. However, one impediment to productivity may be connectivity. A researcher at Stanford University found that only 65 percent of Americans said they had a fast enough internet connection to support video calls, and in many parts of the developing world, the connectivity infrastructure is sparse or non-existent. Developing digital infrastructure will require significant public and private investment.
So, we can safely conclude that after adapting to work-from-home life during the pandemic, not all your staff may return to the physical workplace. Given the win-win scenario of having a virtual workforce, business leaders should allow their teams to continue working from home. This is an important option if you want to be competitive in attracting and retaining the right talent for your organisation.
A survey by LaSalle Network found that 77% of companies are moving to a hybrid model, with a proportion of workers at home and the rest working in the office. For teams that work better in person, leadership can invite them back and monitor productivity as well as the mental health and wellbeing of their employees, to achieve the ideal hybrid workforce balance.
The hybrid work solution implies that organisations will be reserving most of their office space for team collaboration, training, and client meetings, though leadership would have to ensure the arrangements suit both clients and staff. Physical space will still be important. People want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles.
Technology that facilitates communication and collaborative work effectively is crucial for hybrid workforces. Maybe you updated your tech suite of business software back when work-from-home orders were mandated. With teams working from different places, you need one centralised place where everyone can meet virtually to work.
Companies deploying cutting-edge technology with smart automation can improve job satisfaction for their employees, according to a 2019 study. Repetitive, tedious tasks are shown to impact mental health by causing symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Technology like AI and bots now exists in our industry, and it can take the repetitive and less interesting work out of the equation. Organisations should invest in technology solutions to increase employee productivity, satisfaction, and the bottom line.
Tech issues can quickly frustrate employees who are otherwise engaged with each other. Make sure you have solid conference calling software and provide remote workers with web cams, headsets or other equipment if needed.
The remaking of work culture
Employees working remotely have been relying on technology to stay in touch, and staying connected should be promoted in the hybrid workplace culture. To compensate for not being in a physical office, business leaders and employees alike should make themselves available online as much as possible throughout the workday. Having a chat feature built into your software is the best way to go. Team leaders and managers should check in on a group chat as often as necessary, sometimes daily, to make sure employees are engaging on the live chat feature. The cadence, content, and duration of check-ins varies based on the employee. Some want daily contact with their managers, others prefer to be left alone until an update is needed.
As your new model of post-pandemic work gets put into practice, your culture will have to catch up with it. The culture at your workplace is the common beliefs and mindsets that affect employee behaviour—the individual efforts and the way employees connect and collaborate with each other. While the core values of your company won't change, the ideas that connect people may have to differ in a hybrid work culture.
Building culture in a hybrid world means both confronting new challenges and encountering new possibilities for creating an environment that’s inclusive and empowering, regardless of whether we’re in-person, remote, or something in between. Managers need to adapt their leadership style to the new way of working. And that isn’t always easy. It is hard work to foster a sense of belonging, connectedness, and trust among your people in a way that can extend beyond the office walls. But with some genuine attention, clear communication, and open feedback you can come a long way.
While many roles in human resources departments are being overtaken by AI-enabled automation, new opportunities are opening up for liaising between employees and companies. Talent professionals can help remote workers adapt and find solutions separately from their managers or team members and be there to answer questions. In the age of automation, having a real person whose sole job is employee satisfaction and success, can make a huge difference to improving your workplace culture.
When it comes to new hires, particularly those working remotely, it is important to make them feel connected to the company and culture as quickly as possible. Besides the direct manager, connecting the new hire with different people at different levels in different parts of the organisation as soon as possible is important. So, for instance, a peer in another line of business, a senior leader, and a lower-level colleague. The idea is to build a network of supporters and enablers that the new hire can go to for advice and learn about how things work at the organisation.
What does leadership look like in the new world of work?
Modern organisations were built on a foundation that is no longer relevant: the idea that you must be physically present with your people to see and evaluate their work. Now that we’ve proven employees can be productive and companies can be run with remote employees, our beliefs about management are shifting too.
Some organisations are concerned about how their leaders cope with the new circumstances of remote work. Some leaders are out of touch with their employees and need a wake-up call because the need for connection between managers and employees has never been greater.
Over the last year, people have been doing a lot of self-reflection on what’s important to them in their personal and professional lives. As a result, their priorities and goals have likely shifted. Leaders should not be afraid to go deep with people about their feelings. It is important for leaders to know what is important to each individual. An example of a topic to be discussed between a manager and an employee is what it means to work at that specific organisation; what are the purpose and values that are important? This can help foster a deeper connection, provided both sides can listen to each other’s view without judgement.
Another tip for business leaders is to not only listen carefully to what is being said, but to think about the how, what, and why of what you are hearing. Observe how your employees interact with you, colleagues, other teams, and those at levels above and below them. Paying attention to those details can help you anticipate the needs of the people in your team.
At the new stage of people returning to the workplace new very practical questions pop up for business leaders, they may need to decide whether or not to require jabs for employees. Either move is a gamble. Some organisations have mandated that all workers must get vaccinated, or at least divulge their vaccination status, before returning to the office. Plus, more organisations are making customers show proof of vaccination (or a recent negative COVID-19 test) to get service. It isn’t a decision that leaders are taking lightly. Many have wanted to impose a mandate; one spring survey from Korn Ferry indicated that 72% of current and recent CEOs of major companies were open to mandates. However, vaccinations have become a political hot potato. If a company does decide to mandate vaccines, it needs to complement it with a full education program. Set up town halls for all employees, so they can learn about the efficacy of vaccines along with the risks to themselves and others of not getting vaccinated.
Stay or go?
The data around quitting is the starkest indication that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Some 46% of the people surveyed for a recent Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
With employees feeling they have more flexibility than ever, they increasingly are focused on making their job work for them. Employees are quitting instead of giving up the possibility of working from home. Some 41% of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a recent Microsoft survey. The main reason given for considering quitting is if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The drive to get people back into offices is clashing with workers who’ve embraced remote work as the new normal. If anything, the past year has proved that lots of work can be done from anywhere, without lengthy commutes on crowded trains or highways. Some people have moved. Others have lingering worries about the virus and vaccine-hesitant colleagues. But as office returns accelerate, some employees may want different options. The lack of commute and spending more time with their family are among the top benefits of working from home.
Talent professionals and team leaders must get involved in understanding each employee's needs and purpose for being at the company and follow-up to help ensure their job is giving them what they want from work and their employer. Some CEOs have already said that they will let their people choose where they need to be to do their best work, in balance with their professional and personal responsibilities. The important task for both leadership and talent professionals is to align the employee's intentions with those of the company.
Many companies have found that working from home cuts costs, while employees have adapted their lives to working remote. The future of work post-pandemic will embrace a hybrid of what existed before the pandemic combined with what worked for the better during lockdown mandates. And we have to keep in mind that the pandemic has only accelerated trends that have been a long time coming: digitisation of workplaces and the platform economy, the expansion of remote and flexible work, and virtual education.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers when it comes to hybrid work. But there are research-based best practices and experience-informed strategies for ensuring that your organisation and employees reap both the benefits of working remotely and the strengths of traditional co-located work.
All this needs to be done based on flexibility, adaptability, and choice for both employers, employees, and customers, supported by clear communication.