2020 will be the year that changed the way many people work. COVID-19 introduced both societal and organisational shifts, with businesses and their employees forced to adapt quickly to new ways of working that included work being carried out remotely and with increased flexibility.
Although it took us by surprise, it has perhaps brought forward many businesses’ plans to create workplaces of the future. It’s presented an opportunity to act now and redefine the future of work, building on what’s been learned throughout the pandemic.
The idea of more flexibility and the ability to work from home has long seemed a dream for many. For others, working from home was often mocked – typically a day where you get up late, log on for a few hours, do some exercise and go for a coffee, make a few strategically timed phone calls and then call it a day.
But during this pandemic, perceptions have changed. It’s created an understanding and level of trust between employees and their businesses that they can work from home effectively.
For employees, removing a stressful commute and the need for smart business clothes and adding the ability to get the washing on while the kettle boils has proved a success1.
In turn, businesses have experienced increases in productivity and now see further potential to reduce overheads. If working remotely becomes the new way of working, office spaces will be smaller, reducing the cost of rent, cleaning and heating/cooling, even if there is a need to invest in IT systems and cyber security.
So, what might our workplace of the future look like, and what might it mean for our environment, social skills and work productivity?
The first steps
The New Zealand Prime Minister has asked businesses to consider a four-day working week, while global companies, like Google and Facebook, have indicated their employees will be able to work from home permanently.
There won’t be a one size fits all approach, however. Each business will need to consider what returning to work looks like for them, with health and safety the primary concern.
- Health and safety – social distancing, stringent cleaning practices for desks, meeting rooms, bathrooms, end-of-trip facilities and shared kitchens.
- Workspaces and facilities – relocating workspaces, collaboration spaces and meeting rooms, facilitating movement around buildings, staggered start/finish and break times.
- Effective communication – clear messaging and empathy from leadership.
- Risk management – contact tracing, travel policies and pandemic contingency planning.
- Mental health and wellbeing – mitigating stress and anxiety for those who may not be comfortable returning to work, ongoing support for remote working.
Is technology a help or hindrance?
Previously, the conversation around digital transformation separated the human impact from technological advances, but we’ve now seen how remote working relies on the use of technology.
The biggest challenge was how to integrate people with technology. How could businesses enable their employees to adapt and work together with the technology? How could they satisfy employees’ desire for connection and wellbeing at work?
Recent events have indicated humans and technology are intrinsically linked and are integral for businesses looking to capture the full value of new technologies . How successful businesses are at doing this will define the future of work.
Leading the return to work
It all starts with strong leadership. Business leaders must map out a path for the return to work, whilst learning from the lessons of COVID-19 to create their workplaces of the future. It’s a significant opportunity to drive positive change – change that might otherwise have taken years to design and implement, jumping through corporate hoops.
As well as the physical environment, leaders need to recognise managing virtual teams is quite different from face-to-face. The norms that emerge during face-to-face contact take longer to establish via a screen and require far more nurturing and intuition. Employees need to understand what's expected of them, how decisions are made, what are the appropriate communication channels and how their performance will be measured2.
Emerging cultural shifts
A sense of belonging
People feel more motivated when they understand how they contribute to broader organisational goals. For example, manufacturing businesses that pivoted to produce essential frontline supplies during COVID-19 discovered their employees “found meaning and inspiration in their jobs” as their businesses increased production3.
More than just treating employees fairly, it’s about creating clear connections across individual jobs, team objectives and the business’ overall mission.
Businesses could use their employee data to build a capability-based workplace. The pandemic has allowed employees to show their adaptability, in some cases taking on new roles or contributing in different areas of a business. By developing targeted programs to help employees better use their capabilities, they could grow and adapt based on their potential not just their existing skill base4.
The real work-life balance
Wellbeing has been a corporate buzzword for some time, but businesses must stop talking and start acting. Considering the health and safety of workers is only part of the story. Wellbeing is about physical, mental and financial security.
Although working from home saves hours in commuting time and allows people to put the washing on while making lunch, it seems they haven’t been able to use this extra time to create a better work-life balance during the pandemic. In fact, the reverse is true. The working day has become longer as people juggle work pressures alongside increased personal demands, such as home schooling or caregiving. The separation between the two has become blurred5.
The future of work must embed wellbeing into every aspect of the design and delivery of work and focus on outputs rather than activities.
Knowledge is power
Knowledge has helped many people progress up the corporate ladder – a prized commodity that can put you one step ahead of your rivals. But the role of knowledge is changing, where collaboration and sharing can lead to far greater success. A culture underpinned by knowledge-sharing and knowledge creation strengthens connectivity and can make a business more resilient to any future crises or periods of uncertainty and change6.
A happy medium
As we return to work, some workplaces will advance quickly, transforming themselves into workplaces of the future, where people and technology co-exist effortlessly. Others may take longer to establish new ways of working. But either way, the future of work is certain to be different from what we’ve known before.
All changes must be sustainable to enable a meaningful, long-term recovery. And while health and safety dominate initial return to work plans, productivity must also be a key consideration. We’ll likely transition to a world where employees will be able to choose how they manage their time between working within the office and remotely.
Businesses will need to choose between “an enhanced version of yesterday or building one that is a sustainable version of tomorrow. The risk is more than that of falling behind—it’s the possibility of never catching up at all7.“
1 Human Resources Director: My staff don’t want to return to work - coming back after COVID-19 https://www.hcamag.com/au/specialisation/employment-law/my-staff-dont-want-to-return-to-work-coming-back-after-covid-19/222116
2 Returning to work in the future of work https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2020/covid-19-and-the-future-of-work.html
3 Mary Mazzoni, 15 companies retooling their operations to fight COVID-19 https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2020/companies-retooling-operations-covid-19/88921
4 Forbes: Will We Return To The Office After COVID-19? https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2020/04/28/will-we-return-to-the-office-after-covid-19/#157be111b1f8
5 Returning to work in the future of work https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2020/covid-19-and-the-future-of-work.html
6 Returning to work in the future of work https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2020/covid-19-and-the-future-of-work.html
7 Returning to work in the future of work https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2020/covid-19-and-the-future-of-work.html
This article was prepared by BT, a part of Westpac Banking Corporation ABN 33 007 457 141, AFSL and Australian Credit Licence 233714. This information is current as at 9 June 2020. This article provides an overview or summary only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. This information may contain material provided by third parties derived from sources believed to be accurate at its issue date. While such material is published with necessary permission, no company in the Westpac Group accepts any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of, or endorses any such material. Except where contrary to law, we intend by this notice to exclude liability for this material.