Putting some steam into the future of work

Technology revolutions can bring profound changes to the ways that we live and work. It can reshape cities and communities – just look at the effect that the steam engine had on the economy of areas like Swindon in the early 1900s.

Mass transportation like the train brought the ability for us to work further away from our homes and communities. Cities like London, Bristol, Manchester and Cardiff exerted massive pull as factory work was eclipsed by office jobs. The commute was born. A 2019 study by the TUC suggested that the average UK commuter spent 59 minutes getting to their office, 5 minutes longer than 10 years ago.

Then the world changed! For many of us, our homes became our workplace and the commute became a process of putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and walking across to the spare bedroom. UK homeworking grew 19% almost overnight (with 47% of workers in the UK doing at least some of their work from home, compared to 28% pre-pandemic, according to the Office of National Statistics).

Essential technologies for remote working - such as cloud, 4G, broadband and video conferencing - were around prior to the pandemic. But it was culture, not technology that compelled many of us to make that daily office commute. It took a crisis to change this.

A crisis is a future that is temporarily up for grabs. So how do we learn lessons from what is effectively a massive, global remote working experiment? What has worked, what hasn’t, and what is sustainable into the future?

This is the picture that’s emerging:

  • The future of work isn’t exclusively about home working, it’s about choice. Many of us who have been able to work from home have found it more productive (and they haven’t missed that commute). But it doesn’t work for everyone – particularly younger people, extroverts, those with smaller shared homes, and unreliable connectivity.

  • The rumours of the death of the office seem to have been greatly exaggerated. In the short term, they help those who can’t work from home to be productive (albeit at a vastly reduced capacity under coronavirus rules). In the longer term they will be places where we socialise about work, collaborate, communicate and create community. They may not be the best places to go if we want to concentrate. That’s why the future is likely to offer a more hybrid mixture of choices for productive work.

  • Working from home may create more hyperlocal “secondary cities”. We might not need or want to be in the office 5 days a week anymore – which may mean that “secondary cities” emerge where we both live and work. Local co-working spaces (or “coffices”, as I like to call them) were already springing up in coffee shops, hotels, libraries and pubs pre-pandemic but could be useful “third spaces” which get us out of the house, spare us the long commute and are more environmentally friendly.

  • Virtual meetings are a great leveller but the frictionless aspect of them means that we can get trapped in a procession of “death by meeting” days. This is a problem with meetings, not the technologies which deliver them. We may need to think whether a meeting is the best way of achieving our goals, or whether things can be done more asynchronously, e.g. on chat, shared workplaces, or even email, before a meeting needs to be scheduled. We also need to think how we overcome the time boxed formality of the digital workplace and reintroduce serendipity beyond the four walls of an office building.

  • The issue isn’t connection, it’s disconnection. A recent study from Harvard University suggests that the average working day during the pandemic has increased by 48 minutes. We may be away from our physical offices, but our digital office can connect and distract us 24 hours a day. This may be a boost for productivity in the short term but, longer term, it can lead to stress and burn out. We need to learn how to find the “off switch” more effectively in order to work more healthily.

  • The role that leaders have in maintaining morale, team cohesion and effective collaboration has been magnified by the pandemic. Offices are an easy shortcut for making culture and purpose visible, and good and bad behaviours observable. Leadership in the digital world needs to make all of this explicit. Digital leadership is less focussed on command and control micromanagement and more focused on storytelling, dialogue, empathy and engagement. The best leaders are learning to acknowledge their own fears, uncertainties, and challenges, and to ask deeper questions about purpose in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment.

The train may have been a significant factor in changing the ways that we work in the 1900s, but digital technologies are now providing the steam for a new workplace revolution. The rest is up to the most disruptive part of innovation – us!

Dr Nicola J. Millard, Principal Innovation Partner at BT