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The Future of Formal Working

Irrespective of the impact of COVID-19, the labour market is moving away from the older, more formal style of working. Even before the advent of the pandemic, CNBC reported that as many as 70% of people worldwide are working from home at least once per week, according to a study by IWG. By formal working, I mean the traditional professional schedule of getting up at a particular time each day, travelling to work at an office or other place of work, and coming home at a set time. Although obviously this style of working remains appropriate for some professions - doctors, judges and teachers etc. - technological advances, combined with the creation of new types of roles, have rendered this tightly regimented form of work largely obsolete for other professions.

There is no inherent need for someone who works at a desk to be at a specific desk in an office at a set time each day when they can easily do their job remotely from home for at least part of the week. This applies to almost every area of the professional world, from banking to technology to marketing. With this shift towards working from home, many things will vanish from many people’s everyday working lives. Dress codes will largely become obsolete, as will the need to start and finish at a predetermined time each day. But just like any form of change, there will be upsides as well as downsides.

Let’s start with the positive side of working from home. Firstly, working from home may be a greener way to work. The elimination of the need for employees to travel into their workplace will result in a reduction in their carbon footprint, as there is no longer a daily need to travel to work. Indeed, for some professions, there might be no need for a workplace at all. Some jobs can be done purely from home, eliminating the need for a company to rent premises, all of which require environmentally costly utilities like heating/air conditioning, hot water and power.

Secondly, flexible hours will permit employees to find a better work/life balance. In the past, the need was to fit one’s personal life around their work, but in a world where people work from home, it may be that people can start to do the opposite. That is, to fit their work around their personal life. It’s possible that this will lead people to have a healthier relationship with their work, in the knowledge that they can more easily balance it with their personal life.

Another result of this shift towards home-working will be that employees become more like employers, in the respect that their performance will be measured more by their output than time spent at-desk. This is because employers will be able to more easily record and assess the quality and quantity of work that an employee has actually done, rather than merely estimating how hard they’re working based on how often they see them about the office. One implication of this might be that promotions will become fairer, as employees will be judged more on the basis of their work than anything else.

The downsides of working from home are self-evident. Some may feel that the social aspect of their workplace may vanish if they are now working from home every day of the week. Others, particularly when starting a new role, may find it more difficult to learn the basic skills they would ordinarily ‘pick up’ simply by watching their colleagues. There is also the classic problem of finding it difficult to switch off after work has finished, as one finds that their home life and work life have suddenly merged.

But arguably the most important implication of working from home, however, is the degree of trust that employers will need to have in their employees in order for the new arrangement to work. As a research report from Deloitte shows, greater autonomy for workers has necessarily required more trust on the part of employers, with approximately 40% of survey respondents citing a greater degree of trust from employers and colleagues as the most significant change to result from COVID-19 working arrangements.

This increased need for trust represents a challenge, but also a possibility, for both employers and employees. The challenge employers face is recruiting people in such a way as to explore their true motivations and professional trajectory. Finding employees who derive a sense of meaning and fulfillment from their work is hard enough, but employers need people who are going to contribute meaningfully to the organization in which they work, but also people who are going to grow and thrive in their new role. In order to do this, they must not only be able to objectively assess the skills and abilities of their candidates, but to understand applicants as individuals: their aims, their motives and their personal needs. From the perspective of employees, greater trust represents the opportunity to have more autonomy over their work, and to take the helm with their learning and skill acquisition in a way they haven’t previously been able to do.

In order for this to happen, a new relationship must be established, in which employees are able to earn recognition for every contribution they make - a new mechanism to objectively record and review their performance. Furthermore, organizations must find a way to trace soft skills that would otherwise be difficult to identify within a corporate context. Last but not least, employers need to review the way they use analytics and data management to allow individuals more control over their data image. Too often, the more nuanced qualities of an individual’s background and skills are missed by analytical techniques which don’t recognize real potential when they find it.

This is the first in a series of six articles, highlighting the issues with employment practice.

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