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Tightening up on the future of work - Slack users testify to the need for flexibility in the Vaccine Economy

Alyx MacQueen Profile picture for user alex_lee July 27, 2022
Remote. Flexible. Asynchronous. How do we define the future of work?

Lego figures in an 'extraordinary workplace' concept © www_slon_pics - Pixabay

Two thirds of staff (66%) would look for a new job immediately or within three months if hybrid or remote working wasn’t an option, according to the latest research from Slack.

It’s UK-centric research, so the findings are clearly open to geographical re-interpretation, but this study of 1000 office workers finds that a majority (73%) believe hybrid work is here to stay and 53% think businesses should operate on a digital-first approach.

Spending more time at home is a must for most with two-thirds likely to start looking for a new job if hybrid or remote working is not offered by their employers. This isn’t likely to get any ‘better’ sooner as 70% believe that hybrid work has helped them with the cost-of-living crisis, with less of their budget being spent on transport and lunches. Bad news for Pret A Manger, but..

According to the Slack data,  it’s not just location flexibility that matters, but time too, with 86% of respondents noting they would prefer to work more hours in fewer days - mirroring the growing popularity of the idea of a four-day working week in the UK.

The research revealed asynchronous work — where communication doesn’t need to happen in real-time — is rising in popularity. 69% of office workers claim it gives them time to perfect ideas and responses before communicating, and 64% believe it maximizes their productivity thanks to not having to wait for others to complete their tasks. Asynchronous work is also saving office workers an average of almost three hours a week thanks to replacing real-time meetings

To create a strong hybrid work environment the research found that technology plays a defining role. In fact, 84% of respondents claimed technology is enabling hybrid work, and has provided them with more location and time flexibility, which is where Slack comes in.

Slack defines the ‘digital HQ’ as a digital place where work happens by connecting teams, tools, customers and partners all together on one platform acts as an online space without silos, where employees and partners can share knowledge, culture and identity.

Almost three quarters of respondents  (74%) said a ‘digital HQ’ is fundamental to making hybrid work a success, while 73% agreed that digital HQs could give businesses a competitive advantage. Chris Mills, Head of Customer Success, EMEA, at Slack, pitched the argument that:

Companies that embrace a digital HQ and create an environment where culture can thrive for all employees are best placed to retain talent and thrive in 2022 and beyond.

Asynchronous work saves time

OK, so that’s the pitch, but as diginomica always insists, the proof lies in real world implementation. To that end, Auto Trader UK’s Head of Infrastructure and Operations, Russell Warman, and  the UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE)’s Lead Developer for Teacher Services, Duncan Brown joined a debate to discuss the research findings.

Hybrid working was already being evaluated by Autotrader before the pandemic. I asked Warman how closely IT at Autotrader works with HR and its people for hybrid working. Who sets the rules - does HR establish the policy and then IT come up with the  tech to support that? Does HR thinking get shaped by what tech can and cannot do or is IT bringing ideas to HR about ways of working? Warman told me:

I would say it is a collaborative approach. I think our people team will often come up with an idea on some of the things that they've seen from our all employee survey. And then they’ll run a workshop with different parties that are interested, where the tech teams can share the feedback they’re hearing from our people.

It’s important to have a forum to share where tech teams can share feedback - what things are we looking at doing, how will our buildings and our technology support that? What are the things that we would need to do to be able to really embed this as a cultural change or as a way of working?

As for the DfE, Brown shared examples of how teams are given quite a lot of autonomy to make their own decisions:

We are treated as grown-ups basically - things about rules or hybrid working obviously handed down from an adult but in terms of how we work, that’s up to us. We work in an equitable way, and we work in an inclusive way. We have retrospective sessions where there's a safe space for people to comment about how things are going and that feels like a necessary building block of making an equitable environment.

Office design and etiquette has evolved

The shift towards hybrid work and a digital-first approach for many businesses means the design and role of the physical office has changed. In fact, 72% have made changes to their office design and set-up to suit hybrid work.

It’s always interesting to see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs come to the fore when people share what makes them happy or sends warning signals about the work environment. The survey additionally found work etiquette has changed with a number of virtual or hybrid meeting habits irritating workers. Office faux pas emerge with half (50%) claiming workers eat foods with strong odors, and a lack of appetite for eating on video calls. Step away from the microwaved fish. As for the bad etiquette of typing during meetings…

Workers themselves have even admitted they have not fully re-adjusted, with 34% speaking to themselves out loud while in the office and the same number forgetting how to make small talk. In that respect, the office has become a much more fluid space in the sense that the place where you sit is less fixed. Meetings are almost opportunistic, with Brown observing that the office in general has become almost a reaction to the isolation experienced during the pandemic:

There's a sense of camaraderie, which you get a lot better in the office than you do remotely in chat. I mean, it's possible to have emoji reactions in it, but they don't go quite as far as human context.

While Slack is certainly helping to transform business communications for a variety of teams, the advice from Warman and Brown is to keep it simple. Warman said:

Establish those team agreements in terms of what needs to be done in person and what will be hybrid. Have a clear agenda and stick to it.

To which Brown added

Write everything down. You might think that you need a diagram or whiteboards, or a set of post-it notes or a Lucid Spark or something like that to get your meeting done. A Google doc with plain text in it is usually more than good enough and it tends to stand the test of time. People can comment and add to it, and you've just turned it into a set of minutes - that's been a superpower.

My take

Vendor-led surveys like this are, inevitably, open to the 'Well, he/she would say that, wouldn't they?' argument. That said, there's a lot here that reinforces what we see around us every day. The shape of work to come in the Vaccine Economy isn't set in stone, but the direction of travel seems pretty clear. 

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