What’s your new normal like? After all, a year and a half of Covid has fundamentally changed the world of work, with technology enabling a shift to remote or hybrid working: or so we’re told. This is usually portrayed as a good thing, not least because it is apparently happening in concert with an increased focus on the mental wellbeing of staff.
The problem is, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the “consensus” can be shattered in the blink of an eye when circumstances change.
So talking about a new normal or a consensus about how work will be organised in the future may be rather premature. As Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organisation and behaviour and leadership at Imperial College, tells WTF, “People are still afraid, still anxious, still trying to make multiple adjustments to the work home lifestyle. Mental health has become more important than ever.” Not perhaps the best environment in which to make strategic decisions.
And who are we talking about anyway when we discuss home working?
Research by McKinsey identified “computer-based office work” as “the largest arena in advanced economies, accounting for roughly one-third of all employment”. Nearly all potential remote work is within this arena, the consulting giant says.
But McKinsey goes on to say that “considering only remote work that can be done without a loss of productivity, we find that about 20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week”. This could be up to five times more than before the pandemic but nevertheless, it continues, some work that could be done remotely is best done in person. It cites negotiations, brainstorming and “providing sensitive feedback” as just three examples. [Is it just coincidence that these are three areas that McKinsey will help you with? For a fee...
Who really gets to work at home?
Whilst it is likely to be possible to overcome some of the concerns McKinsey raises, it’s not hard to spot a really insidious digital divide opening up here. Take it to the extreme, and society splits between a cohort of, often-highly-paid knowledge workers with the luxury of living wherever they wish, and those in roles that require them to be in a given place—factories or construction sites, health facilities or even trading floors—together with an ever more insecure tier of baristas and Uber drivers. Furthermore, only seeing your bosses face to face when they fire you is hardly likely to help social cohesion, pandemic or no pandemic.
So, let’s assume we’re talking about those knowledge workers—coders, engineers, execs and the like. Even then, a junior coder sharing both an inner city flat and a broadband connection might have a very different “remote” experience to the commuter-belt C-level exec with a lavishly appointed home study. And both might have a far more seamless experience than the engineering manager who has opted for a rural idyll, only to find their broadband connection is as olde worlde as their barn conversion.
Putting aside those different experiences, as BT futurist and principal innovation partner, Dr Nicola Millard tells us, “What's largely happened with the pandemic is a lot of the stuff that we were looking at pre pandemic has just been hyper accelerated. And that includes some of the issues with work as well.”
Millard points out, that “hybrid working” and “flexible working” are not the same thing, and that much of the debate so far has centred on “place”, i.e. where work happens, rather than the nature of work itself.
While companies have offered flexibility through the pandemic, it wasn’t by choice, and Millard says they haven’t really grappled with the structural changes remote or hybrid working mean longer term. Just consider “hybrid” meetings, Millard says, where the well-documented psychological phenomenon of proximity bias means that virtual attendees to an otherwise physical meeting inevitably get squeezed out.
The problems of hybrid meetings are not insurmountable, as Judy Rees explains. But this opens up the whole problem of how to foster the collaboration that modern business thrives on, and which traditionally has been contingent on people physically being in the same place for substantial chunks of time.
As Chaturvedi says, “Can we collaborate, can we build trust as much as when we’re meeting physically? When you are in a room with people, the ambience, the atmosphere is very energetic, and you achieve more ideas.” Coffee chats and informal meetings are an integral part of collaboration, he says.
Collaboration vendors are only too happy to step in, but it isn’t enough for them to simply provide a platform for working together. They just can’t hold back from offering to use analytics to automate and optimise collaboration. But Chaturvedi says “If you become too instrumental, too automated, it will be harder to create that trust, which will show up in the performance or productivity of the firm”.
Millard adds that while organisations can apply industrial revolution era measurements to some [modern] roles, such as a driver or production line worker, they “simply don’t know how to measure knowledge”.
Watching you at home
Clumsy attempts at surveillance will backfire she says, “We know that if people have more discretion around how they work, and more choices, they get less stressed, but they also get more engaged. So having technologies that control people to the nth degree, actually probably leads to burnout and disengagement.”
And this, she adds, has implications for customer experience too: “We know that employee experience and customer experience are intimately linked.”
For now, employees might have the upper hand when it comes to experience. As ITIL 4.0 contributor and IT service management veteran Mark Smalley tells us, one short-term effect of the pandemic is that in many markets there are more job opportunities than people to fill them.
“Which means that there's probably a shift in power from employers to employees. So organisations, managers, employers will probably be paying more attention to employee experience and employee satisfaction than previously.” And job satisfaction includes the ability to realise broader aspirations, such as “the desire to help customers get their jobs done, or the satisfaction of actually helping someone do something useful”. Plus the desire to trust and be trusted in the workplace and “to do the ethically right thing”.
The question is whether employers will continue to pay this degree of attention to employees’ aspirations when labour markets balance themselves out.
There’s a global element to this as well. While shifting to remote work—and collaboration—might not be a major challenge in Europe or North America, this is not necessarily the case in other regions. As Jagdeep Singh, who has run transformation projects in the UK and is currently working in the Gulf tells us, in many parts of the Middle East or North Africa, the infrastructure to support remote or hybrid working is simply not yet in place.
Even where it is possible to consider hybrid working, this might be moot if IT infrastructure is run on more traditional lines. “A geography might prohibit cloud, or in other cases cloud might not be available, or not available in the quality that you're expecting,” he says.
Lastly, he says, cultural differences mean that face to face communication is still overwhelmingly preferred to virtual comms in large parts of the world. It’s one thing changing the culture of a single organisation, or even industry. Changing that of a whole region is quite another.
And what happens in other parts of the world matters more than ever, because there is more disruption headed our way, and this might require a different response to what has enabled us to carry on working since March 2020.
There is always the risk of Covid continuing to drag on, or indeed of other, potentially even nastier, pandemics. But we also have to consider technological changes which have profound implications for how we work. Container Solutions’ co-founder Jamie Dobson has explored the role of Cloud Native in jobless recoveries, for example. Moreover, AI has the potential to automate some roles out of existence. How does society as a whole cope with that? Greater awareness of inequity can have implications for how we relate to our fellow workers, but also has an impact on companies. Companies may not have the luxury of NOT taking a position on an issue like Black Lives Matter, suggests Smalley, if their workers demand it.
And looming over all of these challenges is climate change, which Chaturvedi says is the biggest disruption facing society. We’ve explored technology’s role in the climate crisis extensively elsewhere on WTF, but as an industry we’re barely getting started on tackling the problems we face.
The future isn’t going to be linear
The pandemic experience shows that businesses can adapt extremely quickly when necessary, and how technology can facilitate this. It’s a truism that things would have progressed very differently with the technology of a decade or two ago. But the strategies that worked in 2020 might actually run counter to what is needed to adjust to climate change.
For example, Millard suggests, companies might be mandated to make their offices “greener”, but this will be for nought when cohorts of workers are working from inefficient 19th century homes. The exodus from the cities might result in a more bucolic mode of life for some lucky workers for at least part of the week, but what if that means an aggregate longer commute when they do go to the office, and more car trips just to manage the necessities of life?
Whilst mindfulness has become a buzzword for individual wellbeing, Chaturvedi says that the challenge of climate change means organisations and their leadership have to be more mindful and ethical as well. This should feed into more ethical decisions at a strategic level, but must also feed down to decision making at a team level, even when the question in hand is spending more to buy a reusable coffee cup.
“So we have to learn to be future ready, change ready. Now more than ever, we need to proactively think and consider several dimensions and new forms of the organisation and organisational evolution itself,” says Chaturvedi. “The questions are, how can we create mindful organisations in managing these seemingly powerful but contradictory forces?... where we can talk of growth and disruption at the same time.”
This a major problem for one set of “knowledge” workers—execs and other leaders, particularly those concerned with “strategy”, who Millard points out, tend to “love certainty”.
“As someone who's been in the futures community for a while, the one thing you learn about trying to predict the future is that there isn't one future,” she tells us. “So I think, in terms of the strategy side you need to address a number of scenarios.”
This is where traditional engineering thinking can become a liability. As Smalley says:
Complex adaptive systems are inherently messy, inherently hazardous. And they simply don't respond to linear and deterministic thinking, which is what engineers do. I think it is becoming more prevalent in the IT and engineering industry to recognise that many situations aren't predictable.”
“It's a question of taking it taking it step by step. Experimenting, seeing if it works. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn't work, do less of it.
He cites the example of the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden, which says the world is either ordered or disordered. The trick, explains Smalley, is “to recognise how predictable the system is, because that determines whether you can apply an engineering approach”.
All of which will be instantly familiar to anyone steeped in the Cloud Native or DevOps world. Scenario planning and constant experimentation works for delivering software and services. Applying it on a societal scale might be a daunting prospect, but is probably our best option.
So, if you want a consensus, it might be that the pandemic has demonstrated the potential of technology to underpin humans’ fundamental resilience and innate ability to adapt to change.
The bad news is that continued wide-scale disruption is likely to be the new normal. Which means you probably shouldn’t get too comfortable working from home.