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Five New Workplace Trends

As the long-term effects of the pandemic take hold, our working lives are being shaken up like never before. The Vitality workplace wellbeing team has insights from the experts.

‘Many things that are happening will change the way we think about the future. That’s important, because we probably could not have gone on the way we were going before the virus,’ said former BP boss Lord Browne, in early June.1 Just two months later, BP announced staggering plans to cull its office property portfolio by almost half, shifting 50,000 of its employees towards permanent remote working and new flexible workplace layouts.2

That’s only one example of the monumental effects the coronavirus pandemic has increasingly had on our working lives, as almost half the nation comes to terms with working from home as a way of life.3

‘The world of work is changing dramatically,’ says Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Manchester University Business School and Chairman of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work.4 ‘Before the crisis, there was concern in the business world about ways to solve problems such as long-hours culture, which should have been addressed after the 2008 financial crisis but wasn’t. Now, the health risk of Covid-19 has made us all think more seriously about implementing changes.’

Vitality Workplace Wellness talked to Professor Cooper and other leading organisational psychologists about the new trends impacting our working lives.

1. The new hybrid working

We tasted remote working and we liked it. But we miss aspects of office life. It’s led to a desire for more ‘hybrid’ working — a few days working at home, others in the office.

Some 74% of British employees say a mix of office-based and remote working is the best way forward, post-Covid-19, according to research by HR company Adecco.5 It also found that 79% of C-suite and executive managers think it’s important that their company implements more flexibility in how and where staff can work (see trend 5). 

According to Microsoft’s most recent Future of Work6 report, 71% of both employees and managers reported a desire to continue working from home, at least part time. Meanwhile, Great Western Railway recently launched three-day weekly season tickets7 for commuters choosing a hybrid working model.

‘Pre-Covid, many people wanted flexible working,’ says Prof Cooper. ‘The hybrid model is really just that accelerated; it’s having the autonomy to work where and when you want to. But it also includes access to a central office where you go into work when you need to, for team-building, to work with clients or for group work that requires proximity.’
Hybrid working also bridges the social gap that remote working left. YouGov research found that 57% of people working from home reported missing having conversations with office colleagues and almost half missed their workplace relationships.8 Hybrid working gives us back those face-to-face moments when great ideas can happen alongside great gossip.
But not everyone will benefit, especially the Gen Z or millennial working from a pokey bedroom in their shared house. ‘Young, professional people who have just got out of college, who need the socialising and networking that offices provide will find this model difficult,’ says Prof Cooper. ‘They are the ones likely to spend more time in office environments.
‘The key to hybrid working is for employees to talk to their managers about what they need from their work schedules and then build a framework that also works for the organisation,’ says Prof Cooper.

2. Extended work hours

Britons are working more early mornings and late nights, the Microsoft report also found.9 The working day has increased by a staggering two hours on average, according to UK usage figures from virtual network provider NordVPN.10 
This might have been an anomaly of lockdown, especially for home-schooling parents working at home who did ‘shifts’ of home-schooling during work hours, then made up the time later.  
But for those who simply worked longer, Prof Cooper has a stark warning, having carried out a meta-analysis11 into how working long hours impacts health. ‘If you work consistent 10- to 12-hour days, you will get ill,’ Prof Cooper says.
‘Most people have about eight hours of brain power in them each day and routinely working longer is not healthy or helpful whichever side of the employee/business divide you fall because it can lead to burnout, a condition characterised by overwhelming exhaustion and apathy.’12
Conversely, working flexibly because you took a few hours off in the afternoon to pick up your kids and cook dinner before going back to work in the evening is fine if it works for you, Prof Cooper points out. ‘That’s a typical example of the flexibility that working from home allows.’

3. Healthier workplace environments

You may have heard of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), which describes the occurrence of, often inexplicably, some office buildings have a higher incidence of illness. ‘It could be something physical about the structure, the interpersonal climate, or the ventilation and/or air conditioning system,’ explains Professor Chris Lewis, an occupational psychologist. ‘Although the only paper that looked at SBS specifically in relation to the transmission of Covid-19 was inconclusive,13 the pandemic has still led companies to look more seriously at the “health” of their office buildings,’ he points out.
In the US, a Healthy Building Movement14 now campaigns for cleaner office air and a healthier environment. Among its members are Joseph G Allen, an assistant professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and John D Macomber, a senior lecturer in finance at Harvard Business School. They co-authored Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, published May 2020.15 In it, they identify nine foundations of healthier buildings.16 Increasing ventilation and the amount of circulating fresh air was paramount, not only for minimising circulating virus particles, but also because it could enhance focus and cognition.17 
Healthier buildings could eventually also mean infrared scanners at building entrances to take visitors’ temperatures, they predict. A healthier work environment also included avoiding the use of harsh pesticides, providing as much daylight and/or high-intensity blue-enriched lighting as possible (blue light is abundant in daylight and has been shown to help alertness),18 installing purification systems in water taps and controlling noise, especially from machinery. 

4. Employee monitoring versus results-based work

Without the traditional signs their workforce is working — namely, being present in the office — some companies are using monitoring software to keep tabs on their staff. It was reported earlier this year that Barclays piloted a system that tracked the time employees spent at their desks, a scheme that the company has since scrapped.19 Meanwhile, a 2018 survey by business research company Gartner found that 22% of organisations worldwide in various industries are using employee-movement data, 17% are monitoring work-computer-usage data, and 16% are using their employees’ Microsoft Outlook or calendar-usage data. For employers, it helps track productivity. For employees, it can represent a privacy issue.
The flipside is to judge someone’s work based on their output and results — deliverables, learnings and reports, for example. ‘We should be trusting the people we are employing to do their work without too much monitoring,’ says Kevin Daniels, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of East Anglia and who led the Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme for the Economic and Social Research Council.20 ‘If organisations put too much surveillance in place it can have mental health effects, lead to distrust and to people becoming less engaged with their work,’ says Prof Daniels.
‘With increased working at home, we’re encouraging organisations to trust their employees to deliver the best job they’re able and to get talking to their managers with regular check-ins.’ Most people don’t want to be left alone all day, but they conversely don’t want Big Brother-style surveillance, he asserts. This type of ‘high hand’ management focuses on setting achievable objectives, then uses regular check-ins to allow times for discussing problems, finding solutions and airing grievances. ‘Some organisations can’t get their head around it at first but there is overwhelming research showing that, rather than micromanaging their teams, managers who are supportive, who communicate often, look to develop the skills or capabilities of those they manage while also setting clear, achievable performance expectations, tend to have more productive, engaged teams.’

5. Asynchronous communication

It’s a fancy-sounding term for something we have been doing with email for years — working on projects that don’t require a real-time response. Now, as teams become more geographically diverse and technology allows more companies to go global faster, much of the work we do doesn’t require a specific location or even a time in which to be done — it’s asynchronous. Some have coined this ‘natural working’, which is simply doing your job where and when you can, rather than in a specific place and time.
Asynchronous communications such as work platform Slack and Google Docs make it easy. Proponents say with less emphasis on the where and when we work, people can focus more on the what, why and how.
One of the knock-on effects, says Prof Cooper, is a dramatic reduction in the costs to companies of international business travel. ‘People in the past would have got on a plane to New York to work with cross-global teams but all that can be done virtually now, even tasks that require close collaboration, can be worked on from different time zones with the right software,’ he says.
But there’s a downside. With everyone working at different times, organisations risk their employees feeling as though they’re working in a vacuum. ‘The more asynchronous we become, the less chance we have to build the professional social connections so important to creativity, collaboration and team-building,’ says Prof Cooper.  
As with all these trends, the key is communication. ‘One of the biggest opportunities that the Covid-19 experience is bringing to the workplace is the opportunity to do things differently,’ says Prof Lewis. ‘The best place to start is with a dialogue between employees and employers about each other’s needs, then finding solutions that work for everyone.’