Working hard or hardly working?
In the final installation of our Future of Work Series, we’ll focus on the development of flexible work practices and the changing nature of the work week. How and when we work is continuously evolving and reveal that the traditional Monday to Friday in the office from 9-5pm is likely a thing of the past. If that that is the case businesses will need to be agile and adaptable to allow for seamless evolution to ensure productivity and the ability to retain and incentivise staff remain achievable goals. To do so, we’ll need to question how we view work. In this article, we will examine various flexible work arrangements and broadly evaluate their feasibility and discuss ways for business to best prepare for the future.
A new environment
Throughout history, the nature of work has undergone various transformations, and continues to evolve in the present day. In pre-industrial workplaces, work was often based on artisanal skills, and work was completed in small groups or individually often at home or close to home. In post-industrial workplaces, work is often based on information and knowledge-based skills, and technology plays a central role in communication and collaboration. It is possible that in the future, the workplace may exist entirely in virtual spaces, with working in the metaverse becoming a commonplace. Currently, the workplace is in a state of flux, with the COVID-19 pandemic having forced many to work from home and prompting a focus on work-life balance. This has raised questions about the long-term feasibility of flexible work arrangements and sparked interest in initiatives such as the four-day workweek.
Flexible work practices
Hybrid / Remote Work
Remote work is a familiar symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic which has mutated into a hybrid system. This is a flexible work arrangement where employees work from home or another location outside of the office. This can be particularly helpful for employees who have long commutes and can also lead to cost savings for the employer. A hybrid workplace seems to be here to stay, and employers will need to adapt their approach to remote work to maintain respectful boundaries and a trusting relationship with their employees. It also will require more traditional employers to adapt to the new normal. As we move into the future, the current newly minted employees are less and less likely to wan to work full-time form an office, and employers will need to offer alternatives if they wish to remain competitive.
Whilst hot desking is not a new system it did take a back seat during COVID-19 but has since resurfaced as a hot topic. The system is a flexible working arrangement where employees do not have assigned workstations, but instead use any available desk in a shared workspace. This means that employees do not have a fixed desk or office space and must move around the workspace to find a free desk to work from on a given day. Hot desking is often used in organizations where employees work flexibly or remotely, or where there are more employees than desks available. It can help to reduce real estate costs by optimizing the use of office space, as well as promote collaboration and networking among employees.
However, the system is not a one size fits all approach. On one hand, hot desk arrangements may be more useful to businesses that are mostly remote and do a lot of project-based work. This is because permanent desks are unnecessary but access to a communal space dedicated to collaborative work is a more efficient way to brainstorm. On the other, some criticise the arrangement suggesting its drawbacks may outweigh the benefits. As employees may find it difficult to personalize their workspace or store personal belongings and may feel less connected to the workplace community. Frustration may arise when a business force employee to come into the office just to spend the day having zoom meeting with colleagues working remotely.
To make hot desking successful, it’s important to establish clear guidelines and protocols, such as rules for desk cleanliness and etiquette. Employers should also ensure that there are enough desks and workspaces available, and that employees have access to the tools and resources they need to work effectively. Additionally, providing some degree of flexibility and choice to employees can help to promote a positive and productive work environment.
Hot desking may be a valuable tool for employers who wish to move to a more flexible work arrangement and leave the choice to employees as to whether they come into an office or not. This will have the added advantage of giving power and real choice to employees about where they wish to work and significantly reduce rental costs for employers. However, this arrangement will need a significant shift in how employers manage performance and measure success.
Flextime is a scheduling arrangement where employees have some flexibility in choosing their working hours, within certain parameters established by the employer. This can help employees to balance work and personal obligations and can also lead to increased job satisfaction and productivity.
This system allows the business to set core business hours in the middle of the day and allow employees to customise their arrival and departure times. It accommodates an employee’s natural energy cycles and personal rhythms and thus supports greater productivity. For example, an early bird can take advantage of their prime hours in the morning, leave work earlier all whilst crossing paths with everyone during core hours.
This system is a proactive way for businesses to address employee well-being and autonomy whilst ensuring connection and collaboration. Ultimately this system combined with remote work may be the best approach to engage young jobseekers who are likely unfamiliar with the traditional Monday to Friday in the office from 9-5.
Compressed workweek/four-day week:
The four-day work week continues to gain traction since we published an article breaking it down in March 2022. For a recap, the system does away with the traditional 9-5 Monday to Friday but retains the 38-hour work week. Hence it compresses the work week into 4 longer days instead of 5 shorter ones. This can help employees to have more time off, save on commuting costs, and improve work-life balance. Ultimately the initiative seeks to revolutionise the workplace, which is a concern to some and exciting for others but at the end of the day its uptake and effectiveness depends on the business. Whilst it may seem far-fetched now it is something businesses may want to keep in mind. Developing a cohesive response to employee enquires may be beneficial since the Select Committee on Work and Care released a report recommending a nation-wide trial which may spark questions. It has also caught on with a number of large employers who have adopted this model.
Ultimately, flexible work practices are most useful when they are customised to suite not only the employee but the business in general, and what works for one might not work for another. That being said, a common denominator in the flexible practices is the fact that the future of work is different to what it once was. Thus, for businesses to thrive in this changing environment, they will need to build trust with employees and change the way that performance and productivity are measured. It is time for forward thinking employers to remain curious to innovative ideas that can enhance the business and take it into a changing future.
How do we measure productivity outside the traditional environment?
In office environments, businesses typically monitor employee productivity through direct observation. Traditional methods may be tracking employee attendance and time spent at work, and by measuring the completion of tasks and projects. Some business may use technologies such as monitoring software or CCTV cameras to track employee activity. However, these methods are rooted in the industrial era and were developed during a time when work was more manual, and employees were required to perform repetitive tasks for long hours. Consequently, employers have historically been sceptical about the productivity of employees working remotely. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to embrace remote work as the only viable option and this has brought knew challenges and opportunities for monitoring productivity. Scepticism spawned by the shift from an office environment to home which opened up potential non-work-related distractions such as childcare or household responsibilities. As a result, many businesses have turned to technologies s to ensure that employees are staying on track there is a limit to their effectiveness.
Is it the most reliable indicator?
In the modern day, methods to measure productivity can include the use of software to track employees’ online activity and keyboard strokes, monitoring webcams and analysing the content of chat messages. The use of technology is likely to expand in the future as was explored in depth throughout our Future of Work Series. These techniques are arguably the digital version of walking down the hall and inspecting which employees are hard at work. But that raises the question of whether either method is a genuine indication of an employee’s productivity. Is the employee with the darkest rings under their eyes the most productive? The one who is the first one in and the last one out or the one that always has lunch at their desk? Whilst research indicates that exhaustion is an inadequate gage of productivity, COVID-19 may have accidently reignited the unreliable inference.
Is hyper vigilance the new micro manager?
If the future of work is no longer the traditional Monday to Friday 9-5, employers may be inclined to adopt hypervigilant observation practices to counteract the change. Without a consistent approach within a business, managers may feel this is the only viable way to ensure employee productivity in the future. This practice is problematic to the employee and employer relationship and the business for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it can erode employee trust and morale, as employees may feel that their privacy is being invaded and that they are not trusted to work independently. This can result in increased stress and anxiety, which can in turn negatively impact employee productivity and wellbeing.
Secondly, hyper vigilant observation can lead to a culture of presenteeism, where employees feel that they need to be constantly visible and available to demonstrate their productivity. This can result in employees working longer hours and neglecting their work-life balance, which can lead to burnout and health problems. This has caused what Microsoft says is the spread of productivity paranoia.
Thirdly, hyper vigilant observation can result in data protection and privacy issues, as monitoring software may collect and store personal data about employees without their consent. This can be a breach of data protection laws and can result in legal and reputational consequences for the business.
Thus, the pitfalls of flexible work practices, and initiatives like the four-day work week arise when business support their uptake but lack the appropriate infostructure to do so in a way that creates a healthy work environment.
While an employee may not know for certain whether their employer is tracking their every move online or in the office, the thought itself can be debilitating enough to reduce productivity. So much so that employees may result to performative productivity by purchasing gadgets like a ‘Mouse Jiggler’. The product is a tool that moves a computer mouse constantly to stop the Microsoft teams’ symbol from switching to idle. Versions of the product went viral online during the global pandemic because employees were scared that their employers would think them unproductive or lazy whilst working from home. To combat these concerns and the subsequent erosion of trust, businesses would benefit from standard and transparent practices.
How can businesses shift their mindset?
Organisational psychologist Adam Grant has written and spoken extensively about the future of work and emphasised the importance of focusing on outcomes rather than inputs. A shift to an outcome focused model will foster a sense of autonomy and ownership among employees. Additionally, communication in any work environment is key but particularly those with customisable workplaces. This is because feelings of isolation and disconnection can become pervasive over time. To mitigate this, Adam Grant suggests that managers should define clear objectives and goals for their employees and trust them to determine the best way to achieve those outcomes and attention should be paid to team bonding and maintaining a sense of connection.
At the end of the day the importance of work life balance has never been more widespread and as highly prioritised. Companies that support their employees right to enforce boundaries around work and personal lives, prioritise self-care and leisure activities will likely see lower turnover rates and more talented applicants.
Since the future of work is now something each business can choose the arrangements a business can implement are endless. However, without a well-rounded evaluation of how it views work the transition will be bumpy. Transparent policies are required to create a clear vision of what flexible work practices will be offered to employees and a clear message to managers on all levels as to how they’ll measure productivity, engage with employees so that they build and maintain trust and commitment.
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This alert is not intended to constitute, and should not be treated as, legal advice.
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please also note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.