The global coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to confront the realities of a fully remote workforce – the good, the bad and the ugly. As restrictions are slowly lifted, the challenge now will be determining the right way forward. Is the future of the workplace bricks-and-mortar, virtual, or something else entirely? In this chapter, we explore how the construct of the workplace is changing.
The global homeworking experiment
At the time of lockdown, the UK workforce was seriously underprepared for homeworking. 55% of UK workers had little or no experience of working from home, 79% of those that did only worked from home for one day a week or less, and 39% didn’t even have a designated workstation or desk.
Yet against all odds, the results of this global experiment have been overwhelmingly positive. 69% of businesses have rated homeworking a success, with 65% seeing no material impact to productivity and 18% seeing an improvement. Meanwhile, 63% of businesses think their staff are happier.
But far from resolving the tension between flexibility and visibility, this experiment might surface new frustrations. Nearly 60% of workers now want to carry on working from home, with four-fifths agreeing or strongly agreeing that their company has the capability to support long-term remote working. But only 40% of businesses have said they will consider remote working policies in the future.
The pressure for presenteeism is ingrained in the culture of many companies and could be difficult to shake. 83% of UK employees have experienced presenteeism and 63% have experienced leavism. Lockdown has squashed the debate about whether working from home is possible. But that doesn’t mean that companies are prepared for what’s next.
Investing in change
To move to remote working, companies will need to invest both culturally and technologically.
At the outset of the pandemic, a third of UK organisations lacked the technology infrastructure for long-term remote working. And while there was a scramble to acquire both the tools and the tech talent to make remote working possible – with 94% of business leaders saying technology has helped them adapt to the new world – this is not enough.
Technology is under pressure to help us cope with remote working, and we must continue to invest if we want this to succeed long-term. For example, remote collaboration tools like videoconferencing and Slack have sky rocketed under lockdown, but more investment is needed. Open-source software, greater transparency of interactions (maybe through blockchain) and VR/AR/XR can all be used to boost collaboration. Extended Reality (XR), for example, uses digital simulations to bridge physical distances – like virtual chatrooms or watercoolers. The rollout of 5G will also support collaboration, with its low latency enabling real-time decision-making and quick, seamless interaction.
Meanwhile, businesses must also invest in the robustness of their tech infrastructure, especially within cybersecurity and the cloud. 45% of UK companies placed their cybersecurity initiatives on ice due to Covid-19 disruption, even though cyberattacks increased by 37% in March. With increased burden on tech to keep businesses moving, delaying investment will heighten vulnerability.
Culturally, companies will need to scrutinise how they support remote working. From stepping back on presenteeism and finding the balance between support (especially mental) and independence, to keeping communication channels alive and giving employees a sense of belonging, remote working is more than just a policy. Managers will also need to be given training to cope with dealing with distributed teams.
As home-based and flexible working become a standard offering and employees have access to more opportunities outside their commuter belt, companies will need to rethink their EVP, culture and benefits. Companies that were virtual from day dot will have a natural advantage when it comes to attracting talent, with intentional policies, technology and culture. The rest of us will have to catch-up.
Flexibility in free-fall
Coronavirus may have expedited the conversation around remote working, but demand has been there for a long time. Even before the pandemic struck, 81% of people said that flexible working would make a job more interesting to them, and 35% would take flexible working over a pay rise.
When we look to the next generation, we see this demand intensifying. 95% of millennials consider work-life balance important and 70% consider it very important. But the next generation want more than just flexibility – they want control over their own career. 75% of top-earning millennials plan to start their own company, while the gig economy appeals to four in five millennials and Gen Zers.
This is important, because it gives us some clue about where the future of the workforce – and the workplace – might be heading.
The future of the workforce
It feels increasingly likely that the workplace of the future is not fixed.
According to Accenture, by 2023 ‘zero-office’ workspaces will be commonplace across knowledge workers in all industries, and by 2025 the first global company with more than a million square foot of real estate will eliminate more than 90% of its footprint. The growth in demand for flexible, autonomous working driven by the next generation and the reduction of bricks-and-mortar workplaces will change our relationships with employers and brands.
In one scenario, the end result could be the complete erosion of the concept of ‘company’. Workers could engage independently and remotely on an almost freelance basis, flattening traditional business hierarchies, while a reduction in overheads means the bricks-and-mortar representing ‘the company’ also disintegrates. Businesses would become an intangible entity – with work input and output delivered by a skeleton crew.
For businesses, this future presents both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, it will enable companies to shrink their operating costs while leveraging a global workforce to overcome talent shortages. By removing the obligations of physical interaction in the office, there are no limits to where talent can be sourced from.
On the other hand, maintaining company identity, loyalty and culture will become more challenging. Even in the new world of a splintered workforce, businesses will still need to continue attracting and retaining talent – even if that’s only for short bursts at a time. Without bricks-and-mortar to bind employees, company vision and values must be what drives and unites employees. Now is the time for companies to find their purpose (see A Higher Purpose).
But of course, not all companies will choose to cut ties with the office, and this is the second scenario. One of the biggest challenges to the remote working debate has been how distance can affect collaboration and morale. Humans are wired to socialise and work together, and this is much harder at a distance. In the last decade, the workplace has already undergone considerable change, with open plan offices and breakout areas becoming increasingly popular to help people work together rather than in silo. Today’s office is a hive of social committees and welfare councils – all geared towards the idea of a united workforce where people are encouraged to bring their full selves to work.
The workplace of the future is more likely to expand on this concept of unity than to obliterate it. Zero office workspaces will only work if there is enough investment in tech, culture and purpose to create a sense of belonging. A more comfortable, and perhaps natural, step therefore will be a hybrid approach. Here, virtual offices will be supported by co-working spaces in select, physical locations. Building on the work of previous decades, and riding on the wave of popularity in co-working offices like WeWork, these select locations will have renewed focus on collaboration and creativity.
Workers will travel to these locations to share ideas, swap stories and work together. Companies large enough to retain their own office will also use these ports as a way to refuel employee morale, while others will share the space to spread the cost while seeding innovation. Instead of eliminating the corporate footprint and disintegrating the permanent workforce, we may see people using workspaces in different ways – more like collaboration hubs than places of work.
But these two parallel futures will only be realised if companies can get a grip on flexible working. The pandemic has proven that remote working is possible, and workers aren’t about to forget that. But businesses that can embrace this change stand to gain more than just avoiding an employee mutiny. Innovation, productivity and loyalty are the elixir of life promised to those that can find the balance.
For years, business leaders have warned of the implications of living in a VUCA climate. The words we use to describe the market – high velocity, unpredictable, turbulent, disruptive – all hint at the need for regular adaptation and agility. The coronavirus pandemic is a real-life example of VUCA in action. And it won’t be the last. Change, both small and monumental, is an inevitability we must all be braced for. And technology is the trigger point for this transformation, the architect of its innovation. It is a catalyst and an accelerant.
In our Tech Through Adversity series, we explore how the world of work is changing under the pressure of a VUCA climate – and the role tech has to play. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.