Five New Workplace Trends
‘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
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.’
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
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.
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
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
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.
5. Asynchronous communication
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.
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.’