Time to re-think where and how we work

Posted on September 24, 2021 at 10:00 AM

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We have been thinking – and talking – a lot about what work and workplaces will look like in the coming months and years. In this latest article, we consider the impact of the pandemic and what this means for practices in our world, such as learning and development, engagement, leadership, talent management and succession planning.

Just as every organisation has, we too have been reflecting on how we currently relate to work and conduct our business – how this has changed and how it has stayed the same.

We’d argue that what we’ve seen is not a total revolution, nor anything genuinely ‘new’, but rather an acceleration of trends that were already in motion. The pandemic has simply put a spotlight on things that were already happening, before we had even begun to hear the new phrase of a ‘new normal’. A term which we shall studiously avoid for the remainder of this article!

Accelerating what was already happening

The pandemic, and the necessary response to it have accelerated the trends already witnessed and it emphasised some existing challenges. A recent McKinsey report supports this position, identifying three broad trends that have been sped up by COVID-19:

  • The shift to remote work and virtual interactions;
  • The surge in use of e-commerce and other digital platforms; and
  • The accelerated deployment of automation and AI.

So, what else does the research tell us about shifts in our ways of working and what to expect as we begin to emerge from the pandemic?

A shift in the way we interact

New research from Microsoft states that we are becoming more siloed.

A statement which is based on their 2021 Work Trend Index, which included interviews with 30,000 people across 31 countries, and an analysis of “trillions” of emails, messages, MS Teams meeting interactions and activity on Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn.

We’re not surprised that one trend could be summed up as “a little less conversation, a little more email”. Indeed, there were 40.6 billion – yes, billion – more email messages sent in February 2021 compared to February 2020. In addition, Microsoft found that ‘meetings’ lasted longer on MS Teams than they used to, with people spending 2.5 times more time in meetings than they did before the pandemic and 45% more chat messages were sent.

We are spending more time (virtually, at least) with our immediate teams but less with our broader networks. Messages to whole MS Teams channels were down by 5%, while private and small group chats were up 87%. There is also a risk that there are further siloes emerging within teams, with people who have very specialised, unique, or technical roles being left to get on with things, which results in them being less aware of what the wider team is doing.

As management consultants, HR professionals and business psychologists, we’ve probably spent a good proportion of our working lives helping organisations to become less siloed and more collaborative. Therefore, it’s disappointing to think that we have regressed in this respect.

The Microsoft report also surmises that remote and hybrid working reduces our ability to build social capital in the workplace, to see links between our own roles and other areas, to spot opportunities for collaboration, and to take advantage of water cooler moments. It also, surely, minimises the chances of having those opportunistic, career-boosting chats with influential people.

But it’s easy to focus on the negative side of all this.

Let’s not forget that a shift in our ways of working also offers benefits and presents new opportunities, – there is also good news – and action can be taken.

We’ve been working with clients to bolster and retain the collaboration and feedback between teams.

Talent management tools such as those used in performance reviews enable individuals to seek and gain input from others across the wider team. It also provides input for signposting next steps for achieving goals and flags areas of development need.

But, more than this, it helps to ensure that a connection is made between team members, even those who are not part of the more formal team. Engagement tools provide a snapshot of the current perceptions of the organisation, the location of hot spots of lower engagement and what needs to happen. Importantly, even when not in the office, working alongside the line manager or hearing about company goals informally, goal setting and goal alignment is easy to achieve. It means even those rarely in the office can be sure that what they do, contributes to the bigger vision of the organisation.

The good news

More people are reporting feeling able to bring their ‘full selves’ to work, including pets, children, homelife, book collections, artwork and, importantly, their emotions, mental health issues, struggles and challenges.

However, this seems not to be true across all demographics, with reports suggesting that there may be a widening gap between ethnic groups, generations, and people of different backgrounds. Many Gen Z workers, for instance, say that it is harder to balance their home and working life, as they don’t have the space and set-up to facilitate effective homeworking and can often be working, meeting, living, and eating in the same room.

But now we are back to thinking of the downsides.

A February report from Tech.co identified seven (mostly positive!) predictions:

  • More flexible and fully remote work hours.
  • More potential downsides to remote working.
  • New employee experiences (e.g., podcasting, coffee roulette).
  • More digital and hybrid events.
  • Increase in cybersecurity concerns and data protection challenges, but more opportunities for experts to come to the fore here, and for organisations to improve in these areas across the board.
  • More cloud-based tech.
  • Greater cross-organisational collaboration.

So, how do we balance these challenges versus the new opportunities?

All the organisations we work with are reviewing the use of their office spaces and physical locations. They are having conversations about returning to work with those who have been working full-time from home and are also reviewing their HR policies and looking at how best to move forward.

We believe that this re-thinking of how and where we work has a very real upside. But also, can present several double-edged swords.

In the coming weeks, we will explore three of these: the use of video technologies; the problem of balance or integration of ‘work’ and ‘outside work’; and the reduction in visibility from remote working.

While we don’t pretend to have all of the answers, we firmly believe that good talent management practices and sound technology solutions have a critical part to play in realising the benefits and minimising the downsides.

We will also consider some challenges and questions for those of us who work in the talent management and learning and development space, as we consider these areas.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about how we are working with clients to help them make the most of virtual working, then please contact us

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