The future of work is unwritten
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The future of work is unwritten

Are the pandemic-related changes in the workplace permanent? Will employees demand more flexibility? Will managers deftly handle the new work-from-home mix? Will the changes be for the better? Worse?

The truth is we really have no idea what the workplace will look like in the years ahead, says one of the authors of a new study, Remote, Office or Hybrid?: Employee Preferences for Post-Pandemic Work Arrangements

“We don’t know. And anybody who says they do know is lying to you,” said Linda Duxbury, chancellor’s professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.

The report, released last week by the Conference Board of Canada in partnership with Carleton University,  makes the case that Canadian employees want to continue doing what they did during the pandemic. If they spent most of their time working on-site during the pandemic, they prefer to get back to the office full-time post-pandemic. Similarly, if they spent most of their time working remotely during the pandemic, then they want to continue with this arrangement, which is driving an inevitable shift in how work is structured in this country.

Long a topic of discussion, remote work was thrust upon us writ large more than a year and a half ago due to the pandemic. While that’s show that working from home can work, it’s also shown a number of downsides – it’s not at all clear what that means for the future of work, says Duxbury.

“So many businesses, and so many employees say, ‘well, we’ve got proof of concept – we’ve just worked from home over two years, everything was tickety boo.’ Well, it wasn’t tickety boo. The data on the mental wellbeing of workers is atrocious. Productivity was mostly maintained, OK, but our data says, and everybody else’s data says, that productivity was maintained because people got up earlier, they worked later, they worked weekends, evenings. So it’s not productivity, it’s just production, it’s more hours,” she explained.

The implications for employers and employees alike were part of the study.

“The pandemic-driven forced experiment of global remote work will have society-wide impacts and has provided us with a rare real-time opportunity to observe the challenges and upsides of the widespread adoption of remote work arrangements,” said study co-author Michael Halinski, assistant professor in the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

While there seems to be a consensus among key decision-makers that post-pandemic many employees want to work from home – at least some of the time – there is little agreement with respect to how work should be structured. Duxbury notes things may not shake out the way company executives expect.

“There’s no playbook and no rules for what’s happening,” said Duxbury. “Managers are going to have to have some honest discussions with employees, who have developed a new set of working habits over the past two years. We need to move forward, and we need both organizations and employees to be willing to compromise on how work will be structured post-pandemic.”

Knowledge workers and others in high-demand jobs will more often be in the driver’s seat – if the working conditions they want aren’t met, they’ll go work somewhere else.

That’s a trend that was already in place before the pandemic accelerated changes in the workplace, says Duxbury.

“We’ve already got that problem, then we’ve had this pandemic, and people were just like, ‘you know, I’m not going to give my heart and soul and my life to my employer anymore if they’re not going to give me what I want – I don’t need this.’ The attitude’s called YOLO – you only live once,” she explained. “So, especially the kind of people who live in the region where you are –  knowledge workers, people who are good at technology, engineers, etc. – they’re going to be able to call the shots, and what their shots are is we want to continue to be able to work from home.

“The detail in the report clearly says the more you work from home during the pandemic, the more you’ve got it as a habit now.”

Into that environment, managers looking to change the new status quo will likely meet resistance as people have adjusted to working from home.

That said, there are issues at play for employees, as well, given that the likes of advancement opportunities are likely to favour those working in the office rather than remotely. Managers will also have their hands full attempting to make sure work is shared equitably.

“There are consequences. We’re going to for sure have some kind of hybrid work, but the devil is in the details,” she said. They say, ‘well, hybrid is some days at work, some days at home.’ What does that mean? So what is it, one or two days? The same number of days each week? Who gets to decide? And if it’s some days at home and some days in the office, who decides? Is there a whole team that goes into the office at the same time? Is it the same days, week after week?  We don’t know. And how about flexibility? So you’re working from home, when is it acceptable for your colleagues to contact you? Are you supposed to be at your desk and available?”

Given that there are far more questions than answers, the post-pandemic workplace will likely develop by trial and error, with employers and employees maintaining what works.

“If they haven’t discussed these things, they’ve got to start actually having some conversations, going beyond generalities into specifics, and realizing there’s no one-and-done here. You’re going to have to try stuff, a lot of pilots. You’re going to fail at things and you’ve got to try again.”

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