Dr Nicola Millard, Principal Innovation Partner at BT shares her views on the future of work.
The death of Dolly?
For many of us, much of 2020 has been spent living at work (or working from home, depending on your perspective). Our commutes may have been reduced to popping some fluffy slippers on and walking across the landing, but our working days, according to research from Harvard University, have been lengthened by about 48 minutes. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” seems to be a distant, quaint memory of times when the boundaries of space and time meant something more than logging on to an endless procession of video calls from our study.
The big question is whether our new working habits are sustainable, or even desirable. We can learn a lot from this massive, global remote working experiment. We need to keep the things that are working (most of us don’t miss that daily commute), discard the things that aren’t (“death by meeting” days), and innovate where things are almost working (supporting more informal, serendipitous encounters). Pandemics have historically reshaped our lives, so we have an opportunity to rethink the ways that we work to make things better for both employers and employees – and maybe better for the environment as well.
Are you sitting comfortably?
One of the big takeaways from this global experiment is that a “one-size-fits-all” solution to work no longer exists. Home working has worked well for about 70 percent of people whose jobs can be done from home; but 30 percent are struggling. That 30 percent tends to skew towards younger workers who don’t have adequate space in their homes to work from (or live with their parents), extroverts who are energised by social interaction, those who don’t have access to the right technologies and connectivity (or a comfy office chair), and those juggling caring responsibilities (such as home schooling).
It’s becoming clear that the future isn’t simply sending workers home, or forcing them to come into an office five days a week – it’s a hybrid. Once it becomes possible to offer more choices, the key is to give people the freedom to work where and how they feel they are most productive and provide them with the resources to help them to do this.
Offices are not dead – they are places where we can go to work when we need to get out of the house, and are key tools for collaboration, communication and building community. They might not be massive, urban HQ buildings in the future, though – with many organisations discussing more localised ‘hub’ working as a greener, more sustainable alternative.
Even prior to the pandemic, all of these issues were being discussed. Most customers I work with have had “digital workplace” initiatives in place for a few years – it’s just that the pandemic accelerated the transformation! The problem is that “digital workplace” can mean different things to different people. It is often regarded as an IT initiative – with a focus on the collaboration tools that have kept us all together when we were forced apart. To some it is a shiny new, hi-tech office space. Ultimately, digital workplaces are there to meet two major business imperatives – to improve employee productivity and customer experience. Although customer experience is (relatively) easy to measure, employee productivity often isn’t. The majority of people who have successfully transitioned to home working are knowledge workers – and knowledge workers are notoriously hard to measure. We tend to fall back on outdated “productivity proxies” such as the number of hours worked (not a great measure of productivity, as longer hours can decrease productivity over time), rather than more meaningful things such as collaboration and contribution.
Beware the “horrible hybrid”
Classic psychology tells us that jobs which have high demand and low control tend to result in stressed employees. Whilst it can be difficult to control demand, providing choices over where, when and how we work can increase employee perception of control and autonomy – and that can significantly improve employee engagement, reduce stress, and improve productivity.
Of course, we do sometimes have to put boundaries around choices – particularly as we balance choice with the need to maintain security and governance. Cyber security, for example, will need to be adapted and modified. But with BT supporting SME’s to ensure they’re upping their levels of online security ready for the future, technologies can build the foundations for successful hybrid working.
The rest is up to us – since people are the ultimate digital disruptor. If we don’t discard some of the old ways of working, we may end up with “horrible hybrids”, with the worst aspects of legacy ways of working, jammed up against the worst of the new digital world. Slaying horrible hybrids requires as much change in our work cultures as it does in the technologies that support new ways of working.
Read more on how BT is supporting smart working here.