The future workplace – challenges and solutions
As the COVID-19 pandemic heads into its second year, the yearning for normality in our lives grows stronger. However, just what normality will look like in the post-pandemic workplace is still unclear. The only certainty is that it will not return to what it was 12 months ago.
That’s the view of Denis Bensch, CIO of FlowCentric Technologies, who says that as a consequence of the pandemic, people are making new choices about where they want to live and how they want to work. Lockdowns have created different expectations regarding flexibility, working conditions and work/life balance.
“For many information workers, these expectations will become prerequisites on which employers will be judged. Employers who fail to meet employees’ requirements may find it increasingly difficult to compete for and retain the best talent in the years ahead,” he adds.
Employees wanting greater work flexibility is not new, as a 2014 FlexJobs survey of 1 500 job seekers showed. However, most companies were hesitant about allowing flexible work options such as working from home and flexible work schedules.
The onset of the pandemic has forced businesses to adapt to having a wholly or largely remote workforce – and the results, although mixed, have indicated to both employers and employees that a return to the old ways of full onsite, fixed-hours operations may not be necessary or even desirable.
On the one hand, the move to working from home has resulted in increased productivity – employees spend more time on productive work and less on commuting and social niceties. The downside, however, is that some companies have experienced a decrease in creativity because there aren’t the same opportunities to sit and talk, brainstorm and plan – humans are social creatures by nature.
“From an executive perspective, the first three months after the sudden move to remote work and management were stressful for many managers who weren’t accustomed to this style of management. Managers felt obliged to spend more time on calls, e-mails and communication with their teams, while both they and their employees got to grips with a new way of working,” Bensch says.
“This eventually settled down as everyone became accustomed to the new management and work style, as well as the technology enabling this work. Organisations with business process management (BPM) platforms and solutions in place that enabled them to maintain control by monitoring the quality of work and access to data, have found the transition far easier.”
However, the past year has shown that working from home is not a solution for everyone. Apart from those who are unable to work remotely – receptionists, maintenance workers and so on – not all largely desk-bound workers do well in a work-from-home (WFH) environment. Their home infrastructure may not be set up to handle their current job (broadband, connectivity, load-shedding, distracting children, domestic upheaval).
But many employees simply may not thrive in a WFH environment as they feel disconnected, lonely or directionless.
At the same time, many people are anxious about going back to the office during the COVID-19 pandemic which, despite a (slow) start to the vaccine rollout, is likely to continue for months, if not years. The workplace itself also looks very different with social distancing, mask-wearing and no cosy chats around the water cooler.
Bensch believes that given these different needs, it is likely that many companies will opt for a hybrid workplace model where some people work remotely and others in the office.
For employees who don’t have a desirable WFH environment (bandwidth, peace and quiet, desire to maintain work/home life separation), it is possible that hot-desk office environments will become more attractive, albeit that this would need to take viral and bacterial diseases into consideration.
However, a hybrid work environment presents its own challenges, with some indications that managing a hybrid environment may be more difficult than having all employees either in the office or 100% remote.
“Managers need to recognise the specific needs of those working remotely and how this affects the rest of the team. Those working from home may lack understanding of how to deal with being a remote worker in terms of professionalism – they still need to turn up for meetings on time and dressed appropriately, for example,” Bensch says.
Another challenge is that decisions are often made informally in the office. Not only could these decisions fail to be communicated to out-of-office colleagues, even something as simple as a delaying a meeting for 30 minutes could be hugely annoying or inconvenient to a WFH parent juggling family and work responsibilities.
And for WFH employees, an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mindset among managers could be an issue, especially if management continues to come into the office. This could result in reduced promotion or development opportunities, resulting from a belief that remote workers are not working as hard as their colleagues: they can’t be seen to be seemingly beavering away at their computer. They could also be regarded as not as hard working because they are known to have household responsibilities during the workday despite the fact that they may be making up that time by starting work earlier and finishing later than their office colleagues.
“A different mindset is required to manage hybrid or wholly remote workforces where managers can’t ‘keep an eye’ on employees and where WFH employees may feel isolated while their office-bound colleagues feel resentful at their co-workers’ seeming ‘freedom’,” Bensch says.
He maintains the best way to deal with these issues is to adopt an objective-driven measurement and management approach. This focuses more on managing by objectives than time spent in front of the computer. It helps people manage their work/life load without feeling they must appear busy in order to appease their manager.
“BPM systems, which provide measurable objectives, are ideal for objective-based management and could thus make an important contribution to the success of hybrid and remote work models,” Bensch concludes.