This is our big chance to create better workplaces | Free to read
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This article is part of the FT’s Rebooting the Workplace series, asking prominent thinkers, policymakers and workplace experts to examine the biggest questions of the post-pandemic moment.
Even before coronavirus struck, the future of work looked uncertain: algorithms and artificial intelligence; shifting demographics and globalisation; the move to outsourcing and part-time work; the endless demand for new skills. The pandemic, the panicked lockdown, nervous shutdown and jittery reopening of businesses have exacerbated those challenges.
But the crisis has also accelerated changes that were already under way and triggered a radical rethink not just of where we work, but how. Two big transformations stand out.
First, for many workers and their managers, the workplace is now not so much a physical location as a virtual space. Displaced staff have learnt to conjure up the office or the call centre from a shared table, a bedroom, or a front room, via laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Second, the pandemic has made leaders appreciate not only staff members’ hidden skills but also their personal hinterland. Multinationals have long operated a system of matrix management, in which staff report to more than one manager — the head of the European region, say, and the vice-president of sales. Lockdown has revealed the many responsibilities of individuals — matrix workers, if you like — not only to line managers but to their families and communities.
The sudden shutdown of the physical workplace was a “forced reboot”, in IT jargon. Businesses are not yet able to reap the full productivity benefits that researchers have noted when staff have the choice of where to work.
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September 28: Work-life balance in the post-pandemic workplace
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October 19: Do we need workplaces?
The urgent short-term priority, then, is for managers and staff to learn how to operate in a hybrid workplace.
That is not just a question of deciding how to combine workers who are physically present with those who remain online. Other “them and us” divisions have been sharpened during lockdown, too: between women, who still bore much of the childcare responsibility, and men; between young workers (often working out of inadequate shared apartments) and their older, more comfortably accommodated peers; and critically between office staff who were able to translate their work to home, and employees, contractors, and gig economy workers who had to continue to “go to work”.
Covid-19 has cruelly underscored this last inequality. Early analysis of deaths from coronavirus by the UK’s Office for National Statistics suggested men in elementary occupations, including builders, security guards and cleaners — the very people helping to keep offices open — were harder hit than professionals, managers and administrative staff.
Having tackled these acute challenges, managers and their teams must confront an uncharted future, in which the skyscrapers, office campuses, and industrial plants of the past are likely to play a smaller part than the skills and technology that filled them. This will require a shift in how jobs are designed and projects organised.
The Future of Work
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Tasks that were in the past defined and allocated by job title or location can now be assigned according to the capabilities of workers. Rather than picking the nearest people to the project leader, companies will now aim to select the best qualified staff, wherever they may sit, and use them flexibly across the business. Access to this global pool could provide opportunities to improve the diversity of teams. Inevitably, too, in the search for efficiency, companies will also outsource more work and push automated solutions deeper into the business.
A wider awareness of available skills presages another change: from work judged by the employee’s hours in the office, to work judged on his or her output. For all the promise of an end to presenteeism, this approach has its pitfalls. German unions are concerned, for instance, that it could undermine collective bargaining and chip away at job security. Intrusive monitoring of performance would put pressure on individuals, adding to the mental health problems that quickly emerged under lockdown. It will be all too easy to emulate the early 20th century’s time-and-motion pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor, of “scientific management” fame, and judge output by quantity, rather than quality.
Hierarchy will be less relevant in a world where individuals’ skills and performance are more transparent, and managerial status symbols are no longer visible. The lure of access to the executive restaurant is not worth much if lunch is a home-made sandwich eaten at the kitchen table. Still, the transformation ahead will load additional responsibility on to managers, even as they find themselves the target of cost-cutting.
Establishing and maintaining the culture of a hybrid organisation will be difficult. Bringing new recruits into businesses will be easier in so far as more search, assessment and hiring will move online. But it will also be harder to shape and train those newcomers, when co-workers are not present to guide them or set an example.
The much-touted values and purpose of a business ought to become more important as a way of binding staff together. Smart managers will use coaching skills to encourage employees to self-organise, without micromanaging them or enforcing the old top-down bureaucracy. Yet as remote matrix-workers answer more to the needs of their family, question the meaning of their work, and seek fulfilment elsewhere, they may become semi-detached.
This may be where the office comes back into play. A central hub, or even a dispersed network of smaller workspaces, will still be valuable as a place where face-to-face meetings that encourage loyalty and spark creativity take place.
The history of the future of work is full of false hopes, failed reforms, and promises of change that seem never to materialise. The tools to remake the workplace were already available before Covid and few used them. It is also easy to underestimate the inertia of the old system and workers’ yearning for a return to normality after a wrenching crisis. Is this time different?
When we reboot our computers it is usually because they have crashed. Switching off and on again usually restores the status quo. But pre-Covid surveys showed many employees were already disengaged from their work. The dysfunction of some modern workplaces was already plain. This crisis has sent a loud error message to business leaders — an alert that change is overdue — and they would be unwise to ignore it. During this brief pause between lockdown and economic downturn, they and their staff have a small chance to reflect, and rebuild the workplace better, not just the same.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor