The future of work is hybrid, yes? Well, maybe. While the COVID crisis drove an inevitable shift to remote working, there are now powerful forces attempting to push through a return to the expensive offices that organizations have built up over the decades.
What shape a hybrid future might take was the topic under debate at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos today. According to Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice, London Business School, change was already underway prior to the pandemic:
People were living longer. That meant they were working into their seventies. Technology trends meant people had to upskill all the way through their life. Many families now have two full-time workers rather than one. And we all felt that work wasn't working. When the pandemic started, I, as a psychologist, said, 'We know that within 60 days, people change their habits, so if this thing lasts for longer than 60 days, we'll all change our habits'. Well, two years later, we're learning a lot. We've learned digital skills. We've changed our habits. We don't get on a train every single day. We've changed our aspirations and that might be some of the reasons why we're getting this Great Resignation.
Gratton pitched an analogy with working life being a TV series, where we’re now in series 2, episode 3:
There are still more episodes to come and there might even be another series. So I think we're all learning and experimenting. My view is that we need to be looking at a granular question, which is, 'How do you make work more productive? How do you help people use both time and place to be more productive, and also to really focus on the moments that matter?'. For example, the young person who's just coming into work, they need much more social interaction than others.
I think the challenge right now is that it's been currently framed as a question between work versus home and how many days [at each]? That might be the question for series two, but it's not the question for series three. The question for series three is, 'How do we help people be more productive and now that we've learned so many new skills and actually got these fabulous technologies?'.
Representing those technologies, Chano Fernandez, co-CEO of Workday, assessed the case for hybrid models of work:
There is some data and some learnings from it in terms of productivity. Many companies have experienced around five percent productivity increases. It's clear that hybrid model work employees really value flexibility and that creates increased job satisfaction. It is clear that that compressed work hours and non-standard hours is something that provides a much better work/life balance and they really appreciate that. It was also interesting to hear that [hybrid working] has had good positive effects on physical health, because many people working remotely are more active than they are when they need to spend time either on commuting or going to the office.
But the shift to hybrid working brings new requirements for employers, he added:
Clearly, we all as employers need to understand that we need to support employees wellbeing, but we also need to train our people. Leaders and people managers need to manage and coach and guide on this new world... Clearly some people feel fatigue from very long days, and maybe video conference calls. So it's kind of the question of, how do we bring the best of both worlds? How do we bring that flexibility that workers are looking for, but how do we bring, as well, that connectivity and those moments that matter? How do we bring that together? ...As employers, we need to be listening and pulling continuously and understanding what our employees are expecting. And then how we are able to cope with those expectations and ready to stay connected and engage?
Hybrid working models are not always open to everyone, reminded Christy Hoffman, General Secretary, UNI Global Union. The working world now is much more complex, she said:
We have to recognize that the majority of workers must do their work in place. So whether it's if you're giving care or you're cleaning the hospital or you're selling groceries, there's not an option for those workers to work remotely...There's a large number of workers who will probably be full time completely remote. Let's say look at the work of call centers, for example. They have a whole other set of issues involving surveillance. What is their compensation model? Are they paid for only for those times when they're logging on? We see some extreme and egregious forms of surveillance for the full time remote workers who don't tend to be as autonomous as as we like to imagine.
If a hybrid model is to be the future, there are considerations that need to be taken into account, she said, if we think this is the ideal world of mix and match when we can decide when we come to work:
In terms of the workers we represent who are working remotely, let's say in the finance sector, in the ICT sector, there are those who are project-driven, and that's one kind of model. But otherwise, a lot of our employers want you to be available for a fixed set of hours during the day. That's fine. These are all things that have been negotiated in Europe to a large extent, where we have the unions that are representing these workers in collective bargaining.
But one of the bigger challenges we see is the the never ending work day, the fact that workers were working longer hours during the pandemic than they did in the past.How do you put some guardrails around that, because if you have total flexibility, you're also always at work? There's nothing that can ruin your nice evening at home than a phone call from your boss that you're expected to take. The right to disconnect for us is really critical. We also see some of the dangers concerning young workers not getting that opportunity for mentorship and networking that they need early in their career.
That kind of collaboration is essential, agreed Fernandez:
Clearly, diversity and inclusion is very important for us. We're trying to provide some training and capabilities in terms of what that means. And of course we bring that to our products in terms of a completely non-biassed perspective, but as well, just the understanding on this new world of work. We're trying to create a space where people are collaborating in terms of what's working from a managerial level, but as well from a peer-to-peer level, because people learn a lot from their peers.
And the expectations around hybrid working models are cross-generational, he concluded:
To be honest, we don't see that much difference in terms of the flexibility expectations from the younger generation to the, let's say, more mature generation. There's been quite an alignment there. The other thing that is interesting as well is that the younger generation wants to have some sort of hybrid, at least as a preference, because they understand that there are some social behaviors and things that they need to learn on board, learn from peer-to-peer.