Sitting together at a breakfast table, the father has his laptop out. He’s on a Zoom conference call and he’s negotiating the acquisition of a nuclear reactor. His daughter is visibly irritated by this. She is trying to do her algebra homework and she can’t concentrate. A few months ago, such stories would be unthinkable. But thanks to the coronavirus, for a brief period of time, they became reality.
We are now at the end of the biggest experiment in work life history and the results are fascinating. We have been given us a glimpse of what our working lives might look like. We’ve also seen some of the challenges we will need to overcome to make this work-based lifestyle a reality. Plus, we’ve also had a chance to experience some of the benefits on offer.
So, what does the future hold?
Previously, working from home was seen as an addedbenefitfor when people couldn’t physically be in the office. There was cynicism about whether this worked. However, massshirking-on-the-job, plummeting productivity and missing-in-action employees did not visibly materialise during the lockdown. In many instances, those working from home felt pressurised to work even harder. Their lack of visibility in the office made them feel vulnerable. They felt compelled to prove their value-add to their line managers. If anything, productivity may have increased. It also revealed new divisions that were not previously noticed.Those people who live in comfortable homes on a good pay package,can have tremendous flexibility to work remotely.
Others, however, don't have this luxury. Cramped inner-city apartments might not be ideal to set up a home office. Families with young children may also struggle to accommodate such work arrangements. Nevertheless, these are challenges that need to be overcome, rather than barriers. A period of adjustment will be needed to find solutions.
For employers, the benefits are significant. There are large cost savings to be made with a decentralised workforce. Many companies may look to recalibrate their business models to operate in this new environment. Expensive desk space and palatial offices could be done away with. Even if there is an office, employees probably do not need to man a desk 9-to-5 during the working week. A “hot desk” model could be used for when employees need to come in for meetings. The hiring process would also become a lot more dynamic and unconstrained. The city, or country, where talented employees live, would be of little relevance to the employer. Time zones would also no longer matter as flexible working would become commonplace.
A couple of decades ago, it would have been impossible to work from home. Advances in technology have made this possible: we have smartphones, laptops, webcams, video conferencing software, broadband internet and remote desktop applications. Decentralised work is not just about saving costs.It's also about business continuity and ensuring that the technology supports it. Having employees spread out in a decentralised way reduces the need for contingency planning. Public transport strikes, adverse weather and sickness become less of an issue.
The challenge is that employees need toadaptto this new digital technology, so they can work. However, what the coronavirus lockdown has taught us, is that those employees who were previously reluctant to adopt new technology, can adapt.
This trend towards decentralised work is all part of a broader digitalisation theme.In some instances, we saw this accelerate during the coronavirus outbreak. Companies were forced to ditch paper-based invoices because of the coronavirus.A good example of how the coronavirus has accelerated digitalisation is the reduction in physical paperwork. For instance,thisforcescompanies to ditch paper-based invoices because the coronavirus has negativelyaffected the postal service.
However, the constraints of the lockdownhavealso revealed the boundaries of digitalisation. In work life, human contact and social interaction is still very important. The bonds between employees,can help create an even more dynamic workplace.
There are also social implications. A trend towards decentralisation, could accelerate the emergence of a gig economy. Digitalisation and technological advances can allow certain jobs to be automated and would reduce the need for companies to hire full-time staff.
There is no doubt that decentralisation will create a huge amount of flexibility in managing human resources. This trend will be amplified by technological progress. However, there will be social challenges and it may not be an easy transition.
The “social contract” will need to be rewritten, especially if a gig economy emerges. New regulations and laws will need to be passed to protect workers’ rights. All of these are, however, very achievable.
The trick is to make the future work for everyone, and not to make everyone work for the future.
Head of Badenoch & Clark
Follow Luca on LinkedIn