Why the new workplace is a work in progress

Written by: Emma Jacobs
Published on: 18 May 2023

City workers
City workers in January. Hybrid working is an experiment, with testing not ‘done and dusted’, says Professor Lynda Gratton © Charlie Bibby/FT

Asked at the World Economic Forum to sum up the future of work, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said: “We’re still learning because there has been real structural change . . . There are new patterns of work emerging.” He was referring to artificial intelligence but also the aftershocks of the pandemic.

The seeds were sown in the first lockdowns of 2020, as white-collar workers retreated to their homes, while many in service roles found themselves classed as “essential”. The repercussions are being felt long after the world opened up again, notably in tussles over office working, skills shortages, and industrial action over pay and conditions.

“We are at a point of real change,” says Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the UK body for HR professionals. “We’ve needed it. Our working practices have barely changed since the industrial era.”

These ructions look set to continue for some time, not least over the role of the office, with many business leaders secretly wanting employees to return to their company desks.

Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of Redesigning Work, says she thought that, when it came to the hybrid model, “we’d be done and dusted by now. But it’s a design process. We’re going through the testing. We are very much still going through experimentation . . . Figuring this out will take time, perhaps longer than we expected.”

According to Deloitte’s recent Global Human Capital Trends survey, 87 per cent of business leaders “believe that developing the right workplace model is important or very important to their organisation’s success”. Yet only 24 per cent feel prepared.

A desire to bring people back to the office is driven partly by worries that workers will not be as productive at home — sparking an increase in remote surveillance and encouraging micromanagement at a distance.

Meanwhile, workers, reluctant to give up their autonomy, insist that not having to deal with a commute, or the distractions of office life, allows them to be more productive. This is backed by a global study from Slack’s Future Forum, a consortium on new ways of working: it found that employees with full schedule flexibility increased their productivity, achieving “39 per cent higher productivity scores than those with no ability to adjust their working hours and 64 per cent greater ability to focus”.

But, as well as the benefits, homeworking raises issues for white-collar unions. Andrew Pakes, the deputy general secretary of Prospect, the science and engineering union, says concerns include boundaries between work and home life and where employers’ responsibilities fall. “Most of our laws were based on the last century, about physical harms and risks. If I trip over a wire in my kitchen, [whose responsibility] is that?” Isolated workers are also a challenge. “There’s no collective work experience; how do you build that work solidarity? How do you spot a colleague being bullied?”

Some of the new practices affect not only where we work but also when we work. Arup, the engineering group, has instituted a seven-day week in the UK, allowing staff to spread their work hours across seven days to suit them, rather than only between Monday and Friday.

Elsewhere, a series of trials around the world have been organised by 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit organisation. Employees cut the time they spent at work to 80 per cent in return for 100 per cent of their pay, while maintaining output. A report on the UK trial, which ran for six months until December, found that, of the 61 participating companies, 56 will continue, with 18 saying the policy is permanent. Other findings included an increase in staff retention and lower burnout and sickness levels.

Inflation has become another new factor in changes to jobs. As employees demand increased pay, some employers are tweaking conditions as part of the negotiations. Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, says employees want the “flexibility to manage costs, transport and food”.

Chris Gray, director at recruiter Manpower Group UK, adds: “a few months ago, employers were looking at bigger wages, then realised it wasn’t sustainable so looked at one-off bonuses, then extra incentives. Now, we’re in a different place. Everyone is at their cost ceiling. We’re seeing an ongoing focus on flexibility; remote working is equivalent to a 5 per cent increase in salary.”

This is especially true in a “candidate market”, which is “making employers wake up to the fact they don’t pull all the strings. In the past, the onus was on the candidate to be more flexible [and employers have] been complacent.”

Flexibility is filtering into jobs beyond the laptop classes, too. Pakes, at Prospect, says the wave of strikes in the UK public sector, including teachers, health workers and civil servants, is not just about pay but also the conditions that have left employees “exhausted by the pandemic. It’s also about where does work fit into our lives?”

Kate Shoesmith, the deputy chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, the professional body for recruitment, says frontline staff also want flexibility — around shifts for nurses, for example.

Talent and skills shortages have forced employers to increase training and coaching internally, as well as think about career progression, including for those in lower-paid roles.

Now, artificial intelligence looks set to further reshape the workplace, as the Microsoft-backed chatbot, ChatGPT, proves its worth. Last month, law firm Allen & Overy said it was introducing an AI tool to help lawyers draft memos.

Gray, at Manpower, argues artificial intelligence should not be seen as a threat to jobs but a driver of demand for new skills. “We have to embrace AI. Here we are . . . with more tech than we have ever had but with a skills gap,” he says. “We still need people to design the systems, [there’s] a massive demand for IT [and the] whole change management process. It moves the type of work we do around, as opposed to displacing jobs.”

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