In 2010, work futurists were warning us that we’d all lose our jobs in the future. But we were supposed to lose our jobs to automation, not a global pandemic.
While automation is still a present and increasing trend, it isn’t the biggest factor impacting work right now. The pandemic takes that top spot. It has essentially hit the reset button on what we deem to be ‘normal’ work practices.
Within the space of a month, companies that had fought against the work from home trend for years, suddenly had to come up with a work from home plan in order for their business to survive.
We’ve come to enjoy the flexibility of working from home too. So much so that now that we can – and are encouraged to – return to the office, a lot of us have not.
A recent survey from the Property Council of Australia on Melbourne city office workers showed that less than a third returned to the office in January. That’s significantly less than the 50 per cent returned private sector worker target the State Government was aiming for, in a city where the majority of workers spent most of last year working at home.
But I think we all know – or at least I do – that purely working from home can’t be the future. IBM proved as much in 2017, when they went to a pure work from home model and found their business lost productivity.
But beyond the corporate efficiency jargon, there’s still so much to be gained from an office environment. A sense of community and collaboration being the two most crucial benefits.
While companies mull what to do with their office leases and what the future of work will look like in 2030, I felt it would be worthwhile to throw out some suggestions based on our work with over 400 managers and HR teams around Australia.
Firstly, don’t cancel your office lease just yet. Try downsizing and see how that goes for you. Spaces to gather will be central to the future of work. But unlike before, attendance won’t be mandatory.
Employees will want to have a combination of work from home days, and office days.
To account for this, work in most office jobs will have to become output-based rather than time-based. Many companies have already shifted to this setting anyway, but those that haven’t will have to adjust or find their own productivity start to dip.
Offices themselves will also have to be redesigned to accommodate this shift away. It will see more meeting rooms (as that’s one of the key reasons you’ll come into the office) and less designated desks.
Many companies may not even operate an office, but instead rent out a small office or hot-desks at a co-working space to give their employees the best of both worlds.
Companies should also use this reset to consider how they accommodate and tap into new and diverse workforces. This includes empowering those with a disability (which is approximately one in five globally, according to the World Health Organisation) and the neurodiverse. This too should be a factor in office design and selection.
Companies that do not have mental health awareness plans should make this a priority as they won’t be able to pick up on in-person cues from employees that work from home.
If companies want to retain their staff, they need to invest in the systems and processes required to look after their employees.
According to research, last year four in five Australian white collar workers said they were affected by burnout, which can take up to two years to recover from. That also doesn’t account for the psychological impact of uncertainty of income and the various lockdowns around the country.
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The last point to look out for is more granular workplace laws that could mandate some of the changes I’ve just described. In 2016, France introduced a “right to disconnect” into its workplace legislation, meaning employees aren’t obliged to reply to after-hour emails.
What seemed incredibly dogmatic for legislators of most developed countries before COVID-19 may now become incredibly pragmatic, to protect overall mental health.
There will be a lot of change over the next few years.
I personally believe it’s for the better, and in some ways it’s overdue.
If this is all too hard for you as an employer, then maybe you can bank on replacing all your staff with robots by 2030. Though, given the track record of that prediction, I wouldn’t count on it.