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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2022-07-11 12:02

Cathryn Barnard



Two years after the pandemic first struck, most town and city centres are still struggling. UK high street footfall is down almost 50% on pre-COVID levels...


Two years after the pandemic first struck, most town and city centres are still struggling. UK high street footfall is down almost 50% on pre-COVID levels, according to some estimates.


While it’s increasingly clear consumer behaviour has changed, it’s also apparent that workers are quite simply not returning to their offices in the way that many business and political leaders had previously anticipated. This of course has a significant detrimental impact on retail and hospitality where revenue models had been reliant commuter spending patterns.


Skills shortages, ongoing pandemic concerns, Brexit realities, global supply chain issues and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have converged, creating a toxic combination that risks significant damage to the health and resilience of the UK economy.


Small wonder the Government is keen to push a ‘business as usual’ approach to the economy. Almost every week it seems, another politician makes a foolhardy and ill-informed comment about where people should spend their work weeks. But there’s little substance behind each soundbite.


Regardless of the economic consequences, hybrid work is here to stay.


In the tightest labour market in decades, the workforce can afford to be selective. Many people are leaving their employers to find organisations that offer a more customised work experience. Invariably, this criterion includes finding employers that are far more flexible in their approach to the ‘where’ of work.


An organisation’s stand on hybrid work is adding fuel to an already molten job market. Like it or not, the challenge for employers now is to fine-tune hybrid working for optimal operating performance. And ultimately, for long-term operating resilience.


Why is hybrid here to stay?

Long before Wuhan became infamous, demand for remote and flexible working was already a key bargaining chip in salary and package negotiations. 2019 research indicated that 92% of millennials identified work flexibility as their top priority.


In the digital age, anyone with a laptop and internet connection can create value. Where work takes place is increasingly a non-issue. Indeed, as Internet quality and speed went from strength to strength, the 2010s saw the emergence of different operating and organising models – results-only working, holocracy and self-organising teams, to name a few.


And given how fast most organisations were able to pivot to all-remote once the pandemic fully took hold, the argument that work can only be completed within the confines of a static workplace no longer holds water.


There are myriad reasons that workers increasingly seek flexibility and autonomy on where and how they work. None of which have anything to do with the notion of idleness, as some more odious MPs have suggested.


Wanting to work more flexibly is of course highly context specific and a deeply personal choice. Here are some of the more obvious reasons for wanting more freedom in deciding where work gets done.


·       COVID has induced an existential awakening

As the first global threat to human life in generations, the pandemic forced us to ponder mortality. By consequence, it’s caused us to rethink how we spend our days. Few of us relish working excessively long hours. Time ultimately is a luxury most of us have too little of.Working flexibly and remotely allows us to recalibrate and improve work-life integration. It allows us to reprioritise the relationships and activities that matter – more time with family and loved ones, more time to focus on health and wellbeing, more time to do the things that make us happy.


·       Improved wellbeing

Working flexibly heightens our sense of autonomy and choice, which immediately enhances wellbeing.


As Daniel Pink pointed out in his 2009 bestselling book, Drive, the freedom to choose is integral to what motivates us as human beings. Being able to design our workdays as we see fit allows us to take responsibility for ourselves in a way that the more paternalistic doctrines of office life inhibited.


And given the scale of the global mental health crisis, optimal wellbeing is a prerogative for most.


·       Cost of commuting

Lockdown working from home revealed just how much time was lost each week stuck in traffic or on increasingly overcrowded trains.


Add into the mix spiralling fuel and transportation costs, such as we’re seeing in 2022, and commuting feels less and less attractive.


·       National skills shortages

Employers are increasingly on the backfoot with regards to hybrid working. With national skills shortages at an all-time high, it’s increasingly risky to deny staff the right to work from home.


There are plenty of employers who are more than happy to embrace hybrid working, and failure to offer it is increasingly cited by jobseekers as a reason for pursuing alternative job opportunities.


·       Lack of purpose

Much has been made of missed watercooler moments and office camaraderie when the country was still in lockdown. Returning to the office has proven underwhelming for many, however.


As anticipated in our 2021 hybrid working guide, too few organisations have explicitly outlined how and why the office is integral to optimising team performance and culture.  Without WIIFM clarity, why would anyone put themselves out to commute to a place that no longer serves any apparent purpose?


Individual preferences for the location of work depend on many things. These include what stage we’re at in our career and life journeys, domestic circumstances, personality type, health factors, and the precise nature of the work we do. 


Increased flexibility and choice in determining where work takes place is now a determinant factor in career and job-seeking decisions.


Which is all well and good. However, as a lifelong student of communication and relationship, we are absolutely deluding ourselves if we believe that organisations can continue to function successfully if we don’t pay attention to the social connection that underscores successful cooperation and collaboration at work. Having somewhere to regularly meet in person to build and nurture our workplace relationships has never been more important.


For any organisation hoping to successfully navigate the coming decade, it’s mission critical to understand the importance of human connection. Which brings me to my next point.


What’s the role of the 21st Century office?

In the digital age, a one-size-fits-all approach to employment no longer works.


Just as we now have abundant choice in almost every other area of our lives, the internet has amplified choice in the labour market. If we don’t like how we’re being treated at work, for most of us, it’s never been easier to identify and explore alternative job and career opportunities.


With increasing numbers of employers embracing distributed working, it’s not hard to find an organisation that offers increased autonomy and flexibility. For so many, this is incredibly attractive. In a tight labour market, employee experience and the freedom to choose has never mattered more.


Some organisations have recognised the cruciality of social connection in optimal team performance. Others are quite simply anxious about a loss of control if they allow their staff too much free will.


Whatever the rationale, if businesses want people to come to the office, they must create compelling workplaces. The office must become a destination people WANT to come to.


Unfortunately, the race to ‘fix’ hybrid work after lockdowns has led to over-engineered and prescriptive hybrid work arrangements in many organisations. These are often standardised for efficiency and as such they’re demotivating. They simply don’t reflect the individualised preferences of each member of the workforce.


Unique preferences are mostly guided by the specifics of each person’s roles and responsibilities, and who they need to interface with in order to deliver their best work. In this context, it’s hard to see how a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid work can ever be much other than restrictive.  


End-to-end employee experience (which extends to any worker delivering value to an organisation, regardless of employment status) is paramount if businesses want to avoid the headache of low engagement and continuous staff turnover.


How we feel about our work, our co-workers and our workspace at any given moment has a direct bearing on motivation, and subsequently, the value we create.  


Contrary to the opinions of some of the more vocal work commentators, we believe a shared meeting space is integral to long-term business success.


But only when organisations clearly identify and communicate the value of in-person interactions. We address this in our hybrid work resources and workshops.


For the ambitious business looking to optimise the hybrid work opportunity, returning to first principles is a logical starting point.


Clarifying the organisation’s long-term vision and purpose and communicating this to the team in a clear and engaging fashion is a prerequisite for any ambitious business leader. It underpins successful alignment and engagement with the corporate strategy and wider mission of the organisation.


An effective internal communication strategy will focus on the value that a shared office space provides.


Once again, this is highly context-specific, but amongst other things, it’s a place to:


1.    Nurture organisational culture

There’s so much chatter about organisational culture, but many organisations still struggle to optimise it.


The two best definitions of culture we’ve found come from Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, and John Amaechi, workplace psychologist and founder of APS Intelligence.


Jason writes: "Culture is the by-product of consistent behaviour."[i]  John writes: "Culture is impossible to define. It’s like smoke. You know it’s there but it’s impossible to grasp." More importantly, he goes on to say, "Culture is defined by the worst behaviours tolerated." [ii]


Organisational culture emerges when people come together and behave in a way that impacts performance. It’s hard to see how culture can be successfully nurtured in an all-remote organisation, without deliberate, continuous and intentional intervention.


Also, culture is NOT the responsibility of HR or elsewhere. It’s the responsibility of leadership. EVERY SINGLE DAY. And how we treat people, through our words and our actions, is the essence of culture.


2.    Optimise engagement and connection to the strategic vision

As above, only when we apply full focus to the operating culture can we hope to encourage the wider team to fully engage and connect with our strategic vision.


Any communication researcher will verify that communication is as much non-verbal as it is verbal. Every single interaction we have with another person has a direct impact on rapport, loyalty, trust and commitment. It’s far harder to build these connective social ties without at least some in-person interaction. Regular meetups are therefore key to enhanced engagement and performance.


3.    Enable spontaneous moments of ideation, creativity and innovation

In the lightning-speed digital age, continuous innovation and adaptation to meet new market contexts is paramount. While of course effective brainstorming can happen via Zoom, the best ideation happens in-person as individuals riff off one another in psychologically safe environments.


4.    Provide social anchoring, connection and community

For organisations to thrive, all contributors within an ecosystem need to feel they’re on the same team. Social connection and a sense of community at work is so important. Relational work is never easy work – we can all get blown off stream emotionally at any moment for any number of reasons. We could all do with better awareness of ourselves and others.


But applied focus on social anchoring is what enables increasingly distributed and on-demand work teams to successfully navigate market complexities and deliver ongoing value.


5.    Facilitate tacit learning and role-model desired behaviours

It’s estimated that as much as 80% of organisational knowledge is undocumented. It’s held in the heads of workplace contributors. As social creatures, much of our behaviour is learned by watching others.


The role-modelling of desired behaviours is never more important than when helping new members of the team, and especially younger members of the workforce, get up to speed with ‘the way we do things around here.’


Arguably the first decade of anyone’s career is the most intense period of learning. Without the experience of watching and listening to senior colleagues in action, knowledge transfer will be restricted.


6.    Celebrate achievements

The celebration of key milestones, successes and achievements is so important to engagement, loyalty, trust and goodwill. Everyone wants to know they’ve done a good job. Regular in-person check-ins that acknowledge progress helps cement commitment to the organisation’s progress and evolution.  


What does optimal hybrid work look like?

Optimal teamwork occurs when all staff are empowered to self-manage, collaborating to focus on strategic deliverables and value. In the digital era, where and when work takes place are increasingly superfluous.


Optimal hybrid working requires all contributors within a workplace ecosystem to recognise their interconnectedness, interdependency and pivotal place as part of a greater, more powerful whole.


This requires a collegiate and community spirit where colleagues look out for one another and identify with the value that comes from world-class communication and relationship. It requires trust and psychological safety.


Building and nurturing a work environment where everyone feels included, committed, engaged and motivated is very much an art. The art of relationship and communication underpin loyalty, trust and commitment.


Excessive codification of work practices has led to levels of disengagement that plagues organisations. Unless we apply emotional intelligence to workplaces in the 21st Century, we’ll never successfully navigate the challenges the coming decades will throw at us.


Let’s think more broadly about hybrid work.


It’s not simply about allowing the team to work where and how they prefer. It’s also about reinforcing the importance of social connection in cooperation and collaboration, and ultimately, optimal team performance.


Blending thoughtfully designed, technologically sophisticated workplaces with a solid understanding of human motivators and team dynamics will ultimately deliver vastly improved outcomes for all stakeholders.


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Get in contact today for a no-obligation conversation about how we can help your organisation optimise hybrid working.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Hybrid WorkingRecruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

[i]                 Fried, J. & Heinemeier Hansson, D. (2010). Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever. London: Vermillion

[ii]                Amaechi, J. (2021). The Promises of Giants: How YOU Can Fill the Leadership Void. London: Nicholas Brearley Publishing

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