The theme of the IWFM Conference 2021 was ‘Emerging stronger’, with speakers tackling the megatrends affecting the world of work. Baroness Camilla Cavendish – journalist, senior fellow at Harvard and former head of the policy unit at 10 Downing Street – used her session to consider the changing nature of work and its likely impact on organisations.
Issues primarily bracketed under the likely effects of ‘hybrid’ working were addressed.
The pandemic may have accelerated some trends, with some now seeing the office as redundant – “but something else happened, which was really surprising – work became more human”.
Video tools have allowed individuals to see their colleagues in a more rounded way. Zoom et al have helped humanise workers with every pet or child that has accidentally scurried past their cameras.
“I think we need to really capture and hold on to that in the future because that could pave the way to better work.”
Post-pandemic, hybrid work is going to mean different things to different organisations.
“The big danger of hybrid working is that we end up optimising for no one.”
Cavendish evoked the concept of Escher’s stairs and “people circulating across different planes but with no one actually meeting”.
“What sounds great on paper is hard to achieve in practice. An organisation is not just a bunch of individuals sitting in our individual silos. It's a group of people who are more than the sum of their parts. Through [enforced] remote working, we're learning quite a lot about what that might mean.”
Old notions and behaviours associated with presenteeism may be on the wane, but organisations working as loose coalitions of workers may mean new paradigms such as wages based on an employee’s physical location (“that’s going to be quite an issue coming down the line”).
Lawsuits and changes in employment practice are likely, as is the way in which workers’ rights are protected.
“How do we build back better after the pandemic and turn this into an opportunity to make work more productive and fairer? Because there's a chance it might not.”
Ultimately, “the real value added in our businesses is when we come together collaboratively to create new ideas. When we think about hybrid work, we need to think about four things: time, place, mental space, and productivity.
“We talk a lot about place, but time is really important. The challenge of optimising schedules, when you let people set their own time, is imperative. There's a difference between coordinating to reach a goal – which you can do remotely with the right kind of technological scheduling – and collaborating to come up with a big idea.
“This idea of downsizing space is difficult because there are going to be times when the space has to be just as big as it was before. If you get rid of too much of it, it’s going to be impossible to manage.
“For me, the biggest constraint of the pandemic has been only being able to work with the particular teams I work with. I don't get that extra conversation with somebody not part of the team. We shouldn't underestimate the importance of that.”
“If you have a sense of purpose and feel needed, you can get up to seven more years of healthy life. The onus is on all of us to remember each other and to try and give each other that shared sense of purpose.”
Hybrid working will oblige organisations to think deeply about how the way their teams are constituted and interact.
Categorising employees into different ‘personas’ could be helpful in providing the right kind of workplace for the right kind of worker.
It will be important to continue identifying and helping those employees struggling with the blurring of work and leisure time.
How is hybrid working going to affect the way teams are organised, and to what extent can they be functionally autonomous?
What freedom of control will workers have over their office workplace in future?