A year on from the first COVID-19 lock-down, this article explores what has changed in attitudes to knowledge working and what the newly styled ‘future of work’ is likely to look like for millions of people around the world.
Remote working and the worker
2020 was a weird year for knowledge workers. The majority found themselves working out of kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – a far cry from the familiar surroundings of the office.
There were some obvious impacts in the way people lived their work life. Meeting colleagues went virtual. The Starbucks morning break got replaced with a cuppa from the kitchen. Cats and dogs played a more significant role in the workspace, along with the occasional guest appearance of children displaying signs of online learning attention deficit disorder (or ‘OLADD’ for short if such a condition exists).
But through all of these changes, productivity generally held up well. Concerns around data security and access to systems were generally short-lived. And the world of work continued unabated for many knowledge workers who already had a smart device and a laptop that gave them access to online services from anywhere.
A year on and businesses are now trying to work out what the future of work looks like moving forward. Is it worth asking people to revert to daily commutes? Are the work-life balance improvements such that the net gains of office working are too marginal?
Together, but separated
Count the cost of of this new paradigm of workforce remoteness and it turns out the fundamentals of knowledge working haven’t been dramatically altered. Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve been able to access the systems I’ve needed. I still have the same meetings with my colleagues and customers. The only difference is they’re on the end of a TEAMS call or a ZOOM. We are still ‘together’, but strangely apart.
The crucial things employers lost but could never measure
On the surface, 2020 proved that knowledge workers can still work even when the environment is somewhat blurred with their home life. But that’s not the end of the story on the impacts of the pandemic on the future of work. Employers DID lose some valuable aspects of workforce operations through the lockdown that are likely to sustain. These include:
Those times when you bump into someone else in a different department at the water-cooler, passing in a corridor, or meeting up over lunch in the work canteen… and suddenly finding you have a solution to one of their challenges, or your working on the same problem from different ends! In a virtual working environment you need a REASON for a meeting. Sometimes, justifying a reason for an online meeting isn’t easy – and doesn’t appear worthwhile – but everyone knows how impactful water-cooler moments can be. The loss to the business comes in the area of ideation, problem solving, and finding ways of doing better things – not just doing things better.
“Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, “Hey, how are you?” and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.”
– Jared Spataro, CVP at Microsoft 365
Particularly for new starters, unfamiliar with the ways of your business, or perhaps struggling with a problem using an app. During the good old days of office working, I can’t count the number of times a more experienced colleague has appeared at my shoulder and suggested a solution or a workaround. In the virtual working world, those moments are lost. It means educating new starters is much more challenging, no doubt reducing productivity to some level that nobody will ever be able to measure.
Coaching and mentoring moments
With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, it’s never been more important to transfer on-the-job knowledge to younger work colleagues. That experience and know-how is difficult to coach into newcomers to the workplace when there’s no physical opportunity to meet. Some conversations are simply too delicate (even nowadays) to have on a ZOOM call.
Creating a value set and culture that workers can buy into
Customer experience is a massive subject for brands these days. For many, it is their most differentiating competitive lever. And customer experience fails normally because of a human not delivering on brand promises. Businesses that appreciate the importance of supporting their brand promises with daily deliverables also know how critical it is to have workers buy into the brand behaviors their customers expect. The remoteness of workers, combined with the influx of flexible workers in the workforce, makes it doubly difficult for businesses today to create a homogenizing brand culture.
Forging a new way of working for a new era of virtual working
While some companies today are insisting that they plan to ‘go back to how things were before the pandemic’ with intentions to fill their offices full of staff once more, I think reality will set in at some point. There is a new balance in the way businesses and people want to work. Technology has removed many of the justifications for the heavy costs of commuting on time, lifestyle – not to mention the heavy impacts on the planet.
No business leader worthy of their pay check and the trust of their stakeholders is going to argue that these softer aspects of workforce behavior that drive innovation, problem solving, tacit knowledge development, work culture, customer experience and the delivery of brand promises, etc. are not worthy of investment. The consequence of their loss will ultimately be felt in terms of staff attrition, a loss of productivity in the long run, and the potentially unrecoverable seepage of knowledge from the organization.
It means that businesses moving forward will need to find new ways to have their people work together, a new formula for team working that delivers results. It will be technology enabled. It will require investment and leadership. And it won’t be a mirror of what’s gone before. You simply can’t replicate a physical meeting with a virtual one, a physical water cooler with a synthetic equivalent, a meaningful face-to-face social networking event with an online tool-kit. What we’re talking about is a ‘something new.’ Perhaps, we just haven’t experienced it yet.
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About the Author
Ian Tomlin is a management consultant and writer on the subject of enterprise computing and organizational design. He serves on the SimplifyVMS Management Team. Ian has written several books on the subject of digital transformation, cloud computing, social operating systems, codeless applications development, business intelligence, data science, office security, customer data platforms, vendor management systems, Managed Service Provisioning (MSP), customer experience, and organizational design. He can be reached via LinkedIn or Twitter.