It’s now almost two years since COVID-19 entered our lives. Those two years have changed the way we work forever. Some are still working from home (WFH) while others have switched to a hybrid work routine. Full-time work in the office is a reality once again for some, but it’s unlikely to become the norm. It’s safe to say that working from home has changed almost everything we took for granted about work, and that presents challenges for leaders and workers alike.
Shaping the workplace of the future
The impact of the switch to remote working was discussed at the 2021 Drucker Forum, which was held in Vienna, Austria, with some delegates attending in person, and others via the now familiar Zoom platform. Andrew Hill, Associate Editor of the Financial Times, chaired a panel entitled How Work From Home has Changed Everything. He opened the conversation by asking delegates about their own experiences of WFH and how they saw the future of work evolving.
Ashok Krish is Global Head of Digital Workplace at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). He told the panel that the workplace of the future has yet to be fully defined but said some new parameters will be required to shape the future of work.
Krish expects that those staff who do go back to the office will only spend around 25-30% of their working time there, and that time, he said, should be focused on tasks that really benefit from face-to-face human interaction.
With the prospect of workers spending up to 70% of their working time away from a formal place of work, Christian Stadler, Professor of Strategic Management at Warwick Business School, raised the question of maintaining staff motivation. Describing how he himself had experienced a disconnect from work during the pandemic he told the panel, “I think many people ask themselves, and companies ask themselves, how can you keep people engaged around big goals of an organization now?” He emphasized the importance of using digital tools to keep employees involved in strategic decision-making to break any sense of isolation from the business.
Continuing on the theme of how, rather than where, people work, Krish explained how his team at TCS has been developing the concept of leveraging a human talent cloud, a federated, borderless and self-governed workplace. He gave the panel an example of how this could work.
“You have to look at work in the sense of a spectrum, from things that require deep personal focus and individual skill, to aspects of work that require collaboration. And depending on where you are in the spectrum, the talent for that work might essentially be in a talent cloud, meaning that I could get an AI engineer in Manila, Philippines or in Montevideo, Uruguay – it doesn’t really matter. They can do their work independently.”
Krish told the Drucker Forum that the pandemic had clearly shown which kind of work can be done remotely – and which can’t. “Individual productivity seemed to work,” he said, “but what did not work is the ability to get together and creatively brainstorm and that I think significantly affected a lot of agility in decision-making.
“We did some interesting analytics and found that about 70% of all aggregate meeting time was low-quality, determined by whether people were browsing or doing something else when a meeting was going on.”
Trust, empathy and leadership
Working from home offers countless distractions. Traditional work schedules can be disrupted by home-schooling, childcare, and other less necessary tasks.
All of this raises the question of trust. Speaking alongside Krish on the Drucker Forum panel, Mickael Locoh, VP Southern Europe and Africa at Steelcase, said, “The power has shifted to employees,” who now ask about the company’s work-from-home policy in recruitment interviews. Locoh believes WFH is here to stay, within a hybrid system, and that leaders need to adapt to the new reality. “It means that from a leadership perspective, there is a more empathic style. The notion of trust needs to be enhanced.”
Christian Stadler told the panel that leaders will need to carefully manage the way in which hybrid working evolves in their organizations. After citing his own challenging experience of trying to teach a mix of remote and in-classroom students simultaneously, he said, “I think experimentation is one of the smartest ways for organizations to figure out what is the best way to move forward.” Data gathered from these experiments, combined with input from employees would lead to the best outcomes, he added.
Building on the themes of Locoh and Stadler, fellow panelist Emmanuelle Duez, management consultant and CEO at The Boson Project, said, the workplace transition we are seeing is an opportunity for leaders to define the purpose of their organizations. “We have seen lots of executive committees asking themselves, what do we believe in? How do we want to work for the future? What kind of work philosophy? Do we want to promote your work in our company?” There is now, she told the panel, “The necessity for leaders and for employees to leverage their convictions... in order to project themselves into the future.”
Defining work in a post-pandemic future
The evolution of the workplace which was triggered by the pandemic still has some way to go. All the speakers on this Drucker Forum panel agreed that the future would be hybrid, but what that would look like for different organizations is still not clear.
Even the meaning of what it is to work is being re-evaluated. “First and foremost, [work] is defined as something that a machine cannot do,” said Krish. “Our view now is that if it can be done by a machine, if it can be done by AI, by automation, I don’t think an employee has any business doing it, because I think it’s unfair to them in the sense that it’s going to be obsolete.
“On the other end of the spectrum, I increasingly see the need for a hybrid strategy to bring people together for this to be practical.”
In a recent article for the World Economic Forum, Krish described a future of work in which employees and managers “must wake up every day and reinvent what work means,” and find a way to stay happy while doing it.