The various political and social responses to the COVID pandemic have led to profound changes in how we work and how we socialize. Rather than predict (in reality, guess) the future of work, it is much more productive to begin by considering Latour’s (2020) critical question posed near the beginning of the pandemic: what do we want to see return and what do we not want to see return after the pandemic? If we are clear about what we value about our work from before 2020, then we will be in a stronger position to “build back better” and shape our work so that it is more rewarding for employees and employers.
In the first part of this article, I will sketch out some of the positive scenarios surrounding a more hybrid form of working as reported in the business press, before turning to some of its associated problems. Hybrid and asynchronous work are both rather vague terms, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll use them to refer to a mixture of at home and on site working, where between one and four full days per week are spent productively at home.
The trend for more home working has undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic. IWG (formerly Regus) predicts that the demand for flexible office space will grow as companies encourage staff to work partly from home and partly in the office. However, this office will not necessarily be on the firm’s premises. It may be in a rented co-working space nearer their home. This latter option offers businesses cost reductions for facilities and services, whilst also promising staff shorter commutes and the benefits of working onsite… but nearer home. It is possible to imagine a situation in the Netherlands where staff do not need to travel long distances to central offices in cities such as Amsterdam but can instead work with local colleagues in a shared space in Almere or Utrecht. Standard Chartered Bank, for example, recently signed a deal to allow its 95,000 workers to access any of IWG’s 3,300 global offices (Makortoff, 2021).
Helping staff to work at home (or near home) more regularly will be more sustainable in terms of carbon emissions, and it will add to their enjoyment of working. Commuting is alienating and one of most people’s least pleasant daily activities: it is rarely a source of happiness. Fewer hours stuck in traffic or delayed on the train and the bus is an attractive prospect. Fewer commuters packed into rush-hour trains and busses and a lower occupation density in offices will also help prevent the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, it appears that most people like working at home on Mondays and Fridays, if given the choice, so businesses will need to ensure that attendance is spread evenly over the week to avoid returning to congested offices, traffic and trains midweek and almost empty buildings and public transport at the beginnings and ends of weeks (Clark, 2021a).
Research by PwC (2021) in the US indicated that 45% of Generation Z and 47% of Millennials would give up more of their future earning to be able to work remotely. Some form of hybrid working appears to be good for staff morale. Tui UK has offered staff permanent “total flexibility” in working patterns with a requirement to be in the office for just one day per month. “Work is something we do, not somewhere we go,” Tui stated in their announcement (as cited in Thomas, 2021).
Many work tasks can be managed very effectively from home. “Focused work”, where individuals need to concentrate on a specific task, can usually be done best at home, away from the distractions of the open-planned office. Offices are, in fact, better suited for “…innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching and socializing” (Jacobs, 2021).
Open plan offices contain too many distractions and are often very unproductive. They do not facilitate the exchange of ideas (as supporters of these office layouts contest) as many people try to seal themselves off from distractions – people moving around or others’ conversations, for example. In fact, studies show that staff have fewer interactions in open plan offices than they do in private ones (Murphy Hall, 2021).
Pre-COVID people “… were sitting in open-plan offices to focus and meeting rooms to collaborate” (Jacobs, 2021). Post-COVID we should aim for the opposite, “…more open or semi-enclosed spaces to collaborate” and “more private spaces for more private work.” WeTransfer, for example, has reduced the number of desks and chairs in its offices by 50%, and created more meeting spaces and workshop rooms (Jacobs, 2021).
The big drawback of working from home is the lack of ‘incidental information exchange’. At work we can hear something that triggers a thought or helps solve a problem. Teams work better with this incidental information exchange and perform better making sense of new projects on site. Once this understanding of the contours of the new project has been created, staff can then perform the more focused independent tasks at home, liaising with colleagues online as required (Tett, 2021).
A study by Humanyze, a Boston consultancy, (as cited in Rees-Sheridan, 2021) has analyzed how remote working over the last year has impacted on collaboration. One of the findings was that ‘strong ties’ (interaction between staff members who interact often) have become stronger, but that ‘weak ties’ (connections between workers who interact for fifteen minutes a week or less) have diminished. This can lead to reduced creativity and team disintegration (Rees-Sheridan, 2021).
‘Weak ties’, and a hybrid form of working where some staff are on the premises and some working from home can lead to cliques as home workers are left-out of informal discussions and decisions. One way to reduce this tendency is to follow Quora’s recommendation that everyone joins meetings from their lap-tops, whether they are in the office or not, to create a level playing field so that employees at home don’t feel excluded (Jacobs, 2021).
There are also practical problems with online working. Zoom and Teams meetings can suffer from wi-fi issues. In large group meetings, many people cannot get a word in as certain individuals dominate. Working long hours in a ‘home office’ can be soul destroying, but if staff feel they have control over when they work, this can help them feel freer (Middlehurst, 2021). However, this extra freedom to work where and when one likes can also make it difficult to synchronize work as many people start to work according to their own individual timetables (Clark, 2021b). 100% remote working is impossible in most organisations, so days when all staff in specific teams need to be in the office will have to be agreed. Furthermore, many people actually need some form of 9 to 5 structure to actually get things done (Conboye, 2021).
However, as the restaurant reviewer for the Financial Times noted, what we don’t need are regularly planned get-togethers in the office to “catch up” and build team cohesion. Staff need informal space to chat and relax with their colleagues. Restaurants and cafes are great places for this. So, why not have team meetings in convivial surroundings? Everyone would enjoy it, and a lot would get done (Hayward, 2021). Businesses might want to reconsider whether they permanently need so much office space and explore the options for hiring outside spaces for team and project meetings. Not unsurprisingly, it is possible to make team meetings more fun and productive by choosing pleasant locations.
Morozov (2013) warns us of the danger of ‘technological solutionism’ where we are led to believe that technology and algorithms can solve all our problems. Although the last eighteen months of working from home has only been possible because of technology, recent ransomware attacks have shown how an almost total reliance on the internet can make organisations and societies vulnerable. Non-digital work and abilities make us more resilient in this respect, so we may need to preserve and encourage off-line working and “paper” systems, too. Furthermore, we don’t need to be paranoid or conspiracy theorists to have reservations about handing over large amounts of information, records of conversations and ideas to profit-seeking multinational corporations (Atrey, 2020).
Although we cannot predict the future with much certainty, it seems clear that the ways in which most of us work have changed since March 2020, and that some of these changes will be permanent. Some of these changes in work have been positive, for businesses and for employees, so as societies we should try to build on these and not allow a sense of inertia return us unthinkingly to 2019.