Updated: Feb 8, 2022
✦ It’s fair to say the work environment as we once knew it has changed for good. We are making history, and it's worth paying attention.
We have witnessed this before in history.
Significant events saw sweeping shifts in the work paradigm. They completely reshaped the landscape for decades thereafter. Go back in time to the 1800s when workers in Europe and the United States moved from fields to factories because of the Industrial Revolution.
Move ahead to World War II and we saw women becoming more prevalent in the work place.
And then there was the leap into the digital age of the 1990s where we were driven by the Internet, which changed the speed of decision making and productivity forever.
Our Present Chapter in History
Like the constant turning of the cogwheels, time never stands still, history passes and new events come up. The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world and in years to come will feature significantly in the history books as readers no doubt wonder what it was like to live through.
At some point in the future, some of you may be grandparents recounting to your grandchildren what it was like living in our times with the pandemic. Our experiences are an important part of our future and the future of new generations. How we change, the choices we make will all affect how history proceeds from here.
Work Life Through the Pandemic
The pandemic has seen a significant percentage of the global workforce swap the office for home. This has taken the ‘Out of Office’ tag to an altogether different level. Now the more common mantra is ‘Work from Home’ which we have been chanting for close to two years now.
The odd child bursting into the room or the family cat sauntering across the screen mid-zoom call aside, working from home has generally proved to be extremely fruitful with no major adverse effects on productivity levels, a trend that may well become the new norm as we progress.
We also have to bear in mind that what works for one may not be another's cup of tea. This is completely understandable. We are not all the same and we don't have to be.
While for many workers this has been a welcome change, for others it has not exactly been smooth sailing. What workers appreciate about working from home is the enhanced schedule flexibility and reduced commuting. Workers no longer need to wake up at ungodly hours just to brave traffic in order to get to the office on time, not to mention dropping off children at school first. Working from home also means parents can take pick up their children from school in the afternoons and they no longer need to dash through traffic a second time just to make it in the nick of time. Some have found themselves eating healthier because they are home and can prepare their own food instead of eating out every day or grabbing a bite to eat on the run. Some who are lucky to have a second home in a more peaceful location in the mountains or by the sea have found themselves being able to work in a better environment. Remote work has released them from the claws of the confines of the office space to nature and maybe even to a life they could only dream of and can now fulfil. Others have very specific situations where it was highly convenient to be at home during the day and not have to take leave from work, for example, having to look after someone who is ill, if they have renovations going on in the house and they needed to oversee things, or if the plumber or electrician had to come over to fix something. And while this may not sound important, dogs have been delighted to have their owners at home and get their proper walks. We are not so sure what the cats think... they have have been unavailable for comments on this issue.
There is a darker side to working from home.
People have complained of cabin fever, feeling like they are trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario among the same four walls day in, day out. It has made the simple act of going out stressful for some, even when restrictions have eased or lifted and this has increased the challenges of socialising with others. People have difficulty navigating social situations amidst the very sensitive issues of face masks and vaccines. Others have found it impossible to cut the umbilical cord from their work laptop. And it's not because they're so in love with their work. It is driven more by anxiety than passion. Not everyone is lucky to have a huge living space with a separate work area. Others miss feeling the human presence of their workmates - the chatter, the energy, the jokes, the support, the idle small talk at the vending machine, the friendly banter with the receptionists before taking the lift up to the office, the quiet squeeze of an understanding human hand when the day has been tough. People have shared that even something as banal as picking out clothes, getting dressed, grooming, putting on make up, wearing a favourite necklace is something that they have missed. Many are tired of wearing the new pandemic fashion of 'home clothes', which are not exactly as comfy as pyjamas but a tad too casual and homey to be seen in the office in.
The challenging thing is, nothing is ever simply black and white. There are many more layers to uncover about remote working, fully going back to the office or hybrid work. Certain jobs demand a physical presence in the office, and companies are concerned about monitoring and tax issues related to remote work. It is not something to be decided with a roll of the dice. It is a process, and legal rules and regulations aside, every country, business, company, individual will have to experience it and find what works best.
Hybrid work: pros and cons
Hybrid work seems to be the popular choice among companies so far. It makes sense to try to combine the best of both worlds.
Assuming we do not experience any more enforced lockdowns in 2022, many companies are planning to give workers the choice, where available and applicable, to be part of a hybrid dynamic where they spend a couple of days at the office and a couple of days at home.
“Home offices will be designated for desk work while company offices will be reserved for creating a sense of belonging and company culture,” Addie Lerner, Founder and Manager Partner at Avid Ventures told Forbes.
“Many companies will offer hybrid remote work policies and pay for office spaces designated for in-person relationship building activities, such as employee onboarding, quarterly team sessions, meetings with employees from other cities and celebrating milestone wins,” Lerner added.
Hybrid work can help eliminate any sense of disconnect that many workers experienced in fully remote work during lockdowns.
“Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work - especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic,” commented Hannah McConnaughey, Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft. “Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it’s hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.”
Another possibility hybrid work offers is a talent reshuffle, something Elizabeth Weil, Founder and Managing Partner at Scribble Ventures, envisages as ‘office walls’ continue to come down. “I think of it as unique talent from unthought of places,” she told Forbes. “For example, why can’t a high school social studies teacher be an amazing customer support person or an online community manager? As being co-located near offices becomes more flexible, we’ll see roles do the same.”
These are interesting times to look at choices, opportunities and possibilities. It is more sustainable to adopt a growth mindset as things start to calm down, than to see hybrid work as a life sentence. If we were to take a little step back and pause, we realise we are all in one very small moment in an ongoing (very long) history, and things will continue to shift and change. It is far more helpful to open our ears and minds to ideas from businesses, employees, customers and share what works, what doesn't and why. Innovate, Create and Collaborate is a useful mantra to stick with at such a time.
Here's an example of how innovations and collaborations can help so many in our communities achieve their dreams - New XPACE for Food Dreamers and Creators in Singapore.
So what's the next step?
For hybrid work to become an effective strategy, there is much work to be done, starting with the basics.
Data from Microsoft states that even after close to two years of working from home, 42% of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and one in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job. Over 46% say their employer does not help them with remote work expenses and 37% of the global workforce says their companies are asking too much of them at a time like this.
Defining a hybrid work approach is complex.
It throws up a myriad of questions, as a recent study by McKinsey showed:
What work is better done in person than virtually, and vice versa?
How will meetings work best?
How can influence and experience be balanced between those who work on site and those who don’t?
How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working in the office are valued and rewarded more than those working more from home?
Should teams physically gather in a single place while tackling a project, and if so, how often?
Can leadership communication to off-site workers be as effective as it is to workers in the office?
It is clear that employees and employers need to work together in order to chart the unknown ahead of them, to communicate effectively and adapt in order to incorporate structural changes.
A Culture of Trust & Flexibility survey conducted by Microsoft in September last year talked about “the importance of embracing different work styles - and the power of simple conversations.”
The survey highlighted the importance of inclusion and manager support, citing the latter as taking on extra significance in hybrid work dynamic. It also emphasised that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, claiming “some employees cite work-life balance, focus time, and meetings as reasons to go into the office. Others see those as reasons to stay home.”
However, that being said, there has been a definite increase in the number of employees that have reevaluated their relationship with work and their employers during the past few years, or are in the process of doing so. There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes to work and careers.
A recent Work Trend Index by Microsoft which quizzed more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, revealed that 46% of the workforce is planning to move because they can now work remotely.
Similarly, a survey conducted by UK Insurance company Aviva last year revealed that almost half of the UK’s 34 million strong workforce plan to make career changes as a result of COVID-19. A report by AP revealed that many workers don’t want to go back to the jobs they once had. Forbes states 4 in 10 employees have expressed consideration about leaving their current place of work and there was a record number of what it refers to as “unanticipated resignations” in each month of last year, that is, people deciding to vote with their feet and walk away from their job.
Change are afoot, and businesses have to be ready to adapt.
The next generation
While the focus has been mainly on businesses, companies and workers, we must not forget that the younger generation are also living through the pandemic. They have and still are experiencing for themselves first-hand the effects of the lockdowns and seeing how their parents and older family members are coping. One cannot expect the younger generation to be unaffected by this.
Gen-Z is one group to pay attention and listen to. And they may hold the key to bringing back what we have lost and are still losing.
In this age of perpetual connection where it can often be difficult to detach from the demands of work, is the allure of the strenuous, stressful, taxing career all it is cracked up to be? The outlook for many Gen-Z college students has changed, and many are now reconsidering their career choices and aspirations.
Furthermore, those from Gen-Z who do enter the workforce will be sure to shake things up, distinguishing their preferences from other generations with a much more values-driven approach to their careers and job prospects.
It is something Paul Murphy, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, believes will be increasingly factored into work software in order to facilitate human connection, rather than just efficiency.
“In the past decade, the future of work was all about helping us do more things, easier and faster,” he told Forbes. “I think this generation’s challenge will be to bring back the human connections we’ve lost along the way.”
There is much uncertainty as the work landscape continues to change and it will be interesting to see how it evolves throughout the year ahead. One thing that is clear is that things will never quite be the same again. We can allow ourselves the space to mourn as we harness the spirit and energy again to take the next best step forward.
Whether it is between countries and companies, businesses and their employees, workers and their families, we cannot underestimate the power of giving people the space to have simple, honest, open conversations. It is even more imperative now to work together to forge the right relationship and balance to establish a new and better way to work. As the adults leading the change in work history in 2022, there is much we can explore, discover and learn to leave a better world for the next generation. The next generation is watching us as we make history.
Ultimately, even as businesses the world over debate over remote work, office work, hybrid work, it really isn't about who is right - it's about finding what works, coming up with solutions, being ready and harnessing a necessary dose of courage to accept change as it comes.
Writers: Ben Tirebuck and Kooi Yann Tyng
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