15th October 2020
It’s the question on everyone’s mind – how will the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic impact the future of work? During last month’s London Tech Week event an entire day was dedicated to the Future of Work Summit, and after hearing a number of fascinating insights from the speakers who took part, we were inspired to write about exactly that.
Astonishingly, we are yet to reach the 6-month anniversary of lockdown in the UK, but for many, the changes to our everyday working routines feel as though they have been in place forever. For a large proportion of those who worked in an office prior to the 23rd of March, we are yet to fully (in some cases even partly) return – in fact, according to ONS figures, 30% of adults in the UK were exclusively working from home at the start of July.
Cleaning product manufacturer Dettol may have caused social media uproar for its assumptions over what people miss about the office, but it is undeniable that technology will play a crucial role in redefining the ‘new normal’ of professional life. However, the question of how this will happen is an interesting one – read on to learn about what we think are the top 5 areas to consider.
1 – Collaboration
The diagram above shows the level of interest over time in searches for the term ‘Zoom’ worldwide – predictably, at the end of August this year, shares in the company hit a record high.
However, beyond illustrating the initial scramble to understand the video conferencing platform, it also serves to make a wider point about our use of online collaboration tools as we come to terms with working from home en masse. Namely, there is a need to rein in the range of tasks and activities that require a group video call to carry out. To successfully capitalise on the many benefits of platforms like Zoom for productivity, it’s vital that we use it sparingly, in doing so freeing up time to focus on more immediate tasks and priorities.
With that said, we suspect you would be hard-pressed to find a worker who wasn’t surprised at how smooth the transition from physical meetings to Zoom calls has been. Indeed, we will undoubtedly continue to refine such solutions as we familiarise ourselves with them.
2 – Flexibility
According to a survey conducted by The Times in late August, three quarters of Britain’s biggest employers are looking at a permanent shift to flexible working.
As well as signalling an unprecedented shift towards more employee autonomy triggered by COVID-19, this fact highlights a significant increase in trust from Britain’s corporations in technology’s ability to support extended periods working away from a centralised office. For many, COVID-19 has served as proof that, when circumstances necessitate it, working from home can match (if not exceed) the levels of productivity achieved in the office when undertaken effectively.
One takeaway that particularly resonated at London Tech Week was the increased intimacy provided by the realities of home working – being able to see your boss or line manager turn their heads and politely shut their study door on an enthusiastic toddler helps team members appreciate the nuanced, individual struggles we face at all levels.
3 – Productivity
The above point is borne out by research – Forbes conducted a study in May that showed a 47% up-tick in productivity when working from home. While the wealth of technology solutions available to us pre-lockdown hasn’t increased significantly all things considered, there is clear potential for a wholesale harnessing of their benefits, geared towards maximising the value of the work we do.
Indeed, the long-standing issue of ‘presenteeism’, whereby employees feel the need to ‘be seen to be working’, might be one that the ‘WFH’ revolution has gone some way towards solving. Without the familiar cues of getting up from your desk, putting on your coat and physically ‘stepping out’ of the office to which we had grown so accustomed, it has become easier to evaluate performance based on concrete, measurable deliverables.
However, one challenge to productivity discussed at London Tech Week was the lack of a solution for large group collaboration. A zoom call where half the time is spent apologising for interruptions due to internet lags is, unfortunately, simply not going to be as creative as a physical meeting room full of people brainstorming a specific problem.
4 – Work-life balance
None of this is to say that face-to-face interactions, brainstorms and meetings don’t have their place in a healthy, well-functioning workforce. Humans are, and always will be, social beings who benefit from in-person communication – many of the conversations I have been part of speculating about where the world of work is headed have concluded that, in most cases, there is a happy balance to be struck between the ‘virtual’ office and the ‘real’ one.
However, if COVID-19 has achieved one thing for the way we perceive our jobs, it has caused us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about how work can be done. One obvious example of this is the work-life balance – the widespread shift to working from home has prompted a significant increase in the number of apps available to manage screen time and accommodate relaxation and down-time.
5 – Diversity and inclusion
Another intriguing way in which technology may be shown to benefit the future of work is in the form of diversity. By decentralising operations away from a physical office (which is too often segmented by hierarchy), some have begun to speculate that virtual work may in fact democratise collaboration.
For example, while a more introverted member of staff might shy away from offering input in a physical team meeting, the ‘levelled playing field’ of sorts created by our current situation more effectively encourages equal input from all parties.
Indeed, lockdown has spurred many to focus more on mental health support. Ruth Penfold, People Practice Lead at Launchpad, the ‘unicorn factory’ of BP, explained at London Tech Week that “A larger than ever number of organisations are actively encouraging staff to exercise and focus on their wellbeing, some providing yoga classes during work hours and offering talks on nutrition, health and the importance of meditation.”
Additionally, home working allows for the personalisation of working spaces to suit individual needs. Not only that, as Fast Company notes, it also makes it easier for workers from varied backgrounds and geographical areas to overcome barriers that would have previously hindered their career path.
While it’s by no means a groundbreaking claim to say that technology is a central part of the working from home revolution taking place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been shown to impact our lives, whether directly or indirectly, in many more ways than we might initially assume.
Whether by democratising workplace conversations, forcing us to reconsider where and how exactly we spend our time, or helping us zero in on creating and providing value to our teams, it’s safe to say that technology achieves more than we think it does. And no matter exactly how the future of work is going to look – it’s certainly here to stay.