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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


2020-10-27 17:34

Cathryn Barnard



2020’s abrupt pivot to remote working has accelerated a primary future of work trend by at least five years...


When the UK Government requested a return to the office at the start of September, it was met with a mixed bag of emotions.

2020’s abrupt pivot to remote working has accelerated a primary future of work trend by at least five years. 


Pre-pandemic, demand for remote and flexible working was already fast becoming a key bargaining chip in the package negotiations of high performers with sought-after skillsets. In May 2019, Forbes Magazine cited research data from flexible working recruitment specialist Capability Jane indicating that 92% of millennials identified working flexibility as their top priority.


Fast forward to March 2020, and overnight what had previously been considered a deal-clinching perk flipped into the mainstream.

But has working from home delivered on its promises?


Remote working was aspirational in that it offered the promise of improved work-life balance. In labour markets increasingly skewed towards knowledge work, it’s no longer the case that work needs to be performed in static locations, in accordance with standardised hours. Pre-pandemic, there was a rising undercurrent of frustration that so much time was spent commuting to and from office locations to participate in activity that added little perceivable value to work-based deliverables. 


So, for many, the early weeks of lockdown and working from home revealed some surprising benefits. More time to spend with loved ones, cost savings on the typical monthly commute to work, and an improved sense of life balance. 


As the weeks progressed though, initial enthusiasm gave way to ‘Zoom exhaustion’ – the overwhelm arising from back-to-back video calls, and a growing anxiety that’s yet to be fully defined, but which nonetheless naturally occurs when a social species feels separated from its community. 


Remote working can be a good thing, but not when it’s offered inflexibly.


For now, questions surrounding the future of the office have been put on hold, as we enter another wave of the pandemic. Most countries are tightening their social distancing measures, and the winter months are looking bleak. 


But of course, this gives us more time to contemplate the future of our workplaces. Now we can consider the challenge more comprehensively – to design for longer-term organisational resilience. 


While much has already been written about the future of the office this year, few have approached the topic from a ‘first-principles’ standpoint.


The first question we ask any client considering ‘what next?’ is both simple and complicated. In our view, ‘what do your team do at work?’ and ‘who do they do it with?’ underpin all future requirements for organisational office space. 


In August, the Financial Times (paywall) reported that the average length of workspace leases had fallen to 27 months, attributed to pandemic-related economic uncertainty. Rent is typically a significant cost of business, amplified by the cost of associated fixtures and fittings. 


The mainstream shift to remote working offers the potential for significant savings over the longer term – thoughtfully designed reduced physical space, combined with progressive communication and collaboration technologies, will soon become the norm for post-pandemic business success. 


Optimal performance outcomes are unlikely however without considering the full suite of data. 


Taking time to understand the daily tasks of each member of the workforce will reveal the true extent to which future office space is required. When work is of the type that can be performed independently of wider group interaction and physically static work tools, there’s a case to be made that this activity doesn’t require a fixed place of work. 


Conversely, if activities are weighted towards team-based collaboration, then undoubtedly space should be made available for critical in-person innovation activities that include ideation, brainstorming, critical-thinking and complex problem-solving. 


Our individual preferences for where we work will depend on many things, including what stage we’re at in our career and life journeys, our domestic circumstances, personality type, health factors, and the precise nature of the work we do. 


That our preferences are considered when decisions about our future place of work are made will determine the difference between high engagement and widespread demotivation. 


Business leaders are fast waking up to the limitations of remote working. Intangible though they are, the chance encounters that ignite fresh thinking are rarely found in the digital ether. Spontaneous in-person moments of connection – the kind that leave us feeling invigorated and re-energised – sit at the heart of innovation and progress. 


A workplace is so much more than a place where work gets done. It’s a social hub where people gather in the pursuit of a common purpose. In-person gatherings foster community, trust, goodwill and relationship – key components of organisational endeavour.


As we reflect on post-pandemic workspace, let’s prioritise the key psychological ingredients for optimal performance outcomes. Blending thoughtfully designed physical and technological environments with a solid understanding of both individual motivations and wider team dynamics will ultimately deliver vastly improved outcomes for all stakeholders. 


Longer term economic recovery depends on it.


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If you’d like to discover more about how we help optimise team performance and internal collaboration, please do get in touch.


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

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