The generation that implements flexible work won’t be the only one living with it.
It wasn’t just World War One that thrust women into the workforce in huge numbers, the 1918 influenza pandemic was another key factor. As Smithsonian Magazine writes, men died at higher rates from the flu (even discounting the war dead) and so women took on their roles. By 1920, 21 per cent of women in the US were employed.
It was a workplace revolution, a ‘new normal’. And one hundred years later, we are still adjusting to it, still trying to get it right.
That’s because a ‘new normal’ doesn’t assert itself quickly. It’s a change in the culture – in what society says is desirable – that causes a million projects to be started and a billion conversations to be had over many, many years.
Now, obviously flexible work is not as culturally earth-shattering as moving women into the workforce. But the same rule applies. In this frazzled moment, where every business has to reimagine itself, it’s easy to get swept up and forget that this change we’re all imagining is quite some time away from its biggest challenge: complacency.
There are a few ways this is likely to manifest itself, and that organisations will have to prepare for if they want to thrive.
As HRM has written before, this current shift to remote work can be seen as a huge worldwide experiment. Companies have proven to themselves that flexible work is something they can offer, and employees have decided it’s something they want to have into the future. But the experiment has variables that won’t be true in a few years.
Firstly, we did it because we had to. Working from home in this period hasn’t been a luxury, it’s been the responsible thing to do in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19. This has given working from home something it will not have in the long run – a sense of greater purpose and perhaps even a sense of nobility.
Secondly, the shift happened during a time of great economic insecurity. So working from home has also been a gift. Those who can do it have got to keep their jobs. This adds a sense of gratitude and a feeling that we’d better make the most of it.
Purpose and gratitude are powerful motivators. It’s likely many of us have had some of our most productive months at work because of them. But when remote work is normal, by definition it will not have a greater purpose and it won’t be conducted with a sense of gratitude. It’ll just be what’s done.
At the moment, the return to the workplace feels both dangerous and hopeful. But in a few years time it will be drained of feeling, and instead a logistical issue.
Today’s workforce isn’t your future workforce
The workforce that is currently working remotely is doing so very much together. Whether they had known and interacted with each other for days, weeks or years, colleagues left the office as one and reconnected online.
This means the current feeling we all have about remote work is unlikely to hold. We only know what it’s like when everyone is forced to do it. My colleague has written about what it was like to be onboarded during this pandemic. It’s alienating and a bit weird to try and socialise with strangers, and to understand what your new company wants from you.
It’s safe to say that, for most of us, the organisation we’re with now won’t be the one we’re with in five to 10 years. So when we go for a new job, one of our questions will be, “How many days a week do you expect me in the office?” And if we don’t ask it, our employer will.
In the future, when work is a blend of remote and office work, my colleagues’ experience could just be regular onboarding. Instead of a new hire coming into the office and slowly learning the ropes, and being taught by having people look over their shoulder, we may have a situation where there are colleagues a new hire doesn’t meet in person for weeks or even months.
This isn’t some minor thing.The power of working face-to-face with other people is real. In the 70s, MIT professor Thomas J. Allen found that the further we are away from each other, the less we interact. Once the scientists and engineers involved in his study were working more than 30 meters away from each other, they barely talked at all.
In an HBR article, co-founder of people analytics company Humaynze Ben Waber showed that this remains true regardless of whether work is bolstered by modern technology.
Both face-to-face and digital communications follow the Allen curve. In one study, engineers who shared a physical office were 20 per cent more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere. When they needed to collaborate closely, co-located coworkers e-mailed four times as frequently as colleagues in different locations, which led to 32 per cent faster project completion times.
Multinational companies are already trying to manage the difficulties of remote teams. But what does it look like when it’s common?
From an employer perspective, what kinds of cultures will best manage it? Will people who work mostly in the office might neglect or resent those who work mostly remotely, or vice versa? Will you be expected to telegraph in job ads the percentage of your workforce that works remotely?
Need to manage a blended workforce of remote and in-office workers during the return to work? The Australian HR Institute has a whole series of guides to help HR professionals manage the impacts of COVID-19.
When ‘normal’ gets old
Twitter’s decision to maintain the option of remote working beyond the end of the pandemic is getting a lot of news. But the more interesting news story might be from 2017, when IBM made the momentous decision to do the opposite, and drastically reduce the amount of remote work it allowed.
The Atlantic wrote an in-depth article on the technology company’s move that is worth returning to now. In its breakdown of the research it states that generally personal productivity – what we can do on our own – increases when we’re working remotely. But collaborative efficiency – the ability of a team to solve a problem – decreases.
It spoke to Rob Purdie, who trains people in the company’s Agile system, and asked if technology can help people collaborate. His answer: “Yes, it can. But the research says those teams won’t be as productive. You won’t fly.”
None of this is to say that companies should return to viewing flexible work as a privilege that’s rarely meted out. If most organisations begin offering flexible work, the few that don’t could kill their recruitment and retention. The essential point is that it will be challenging to manage a mixture of flexible and in-office work, and the drawbacks each organisation will experience might not be known for some time.
Every decision carries risk. It’s very common for a business to make a change (such as transitioning to an open-plan office or investing in a new technology) that works great at first but eventually does more harm than good. Then, mostly because change is difficult, instead of transforming again, complacency sets in. The ‘new normal’ becomes painful but we put up with it because it’s now just normal.
Once the pandemic is over, and flexible work is mundane, that could be the fate of more than a few organisations.