How Long Do You Think The Hybrid Workplace Will Last?

How Long Do You Think The Hybrid Workplace Will Last?

Predicting the future of work is hard when you're still in the midst of the catastrophe. It's clear though that futuristic trends are emerging having been catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The big question is to what degree they'll survive the crisis? On Career 360, Howie Lim finds out from Dan Schawbel, Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, Workplace Researcher, and Author of New York Times bestseller, “Back to Human”.

Howie Lim: Although the technology to facilitate remote works have been around for over a decade, Covid-19 has forced hundreds of millions of employers and employees worldwide to engage in a sudden massive real-time experiment with remote work arrangements. But to what extent is the pandemic-induced regime of remote work, flexible hours and AI-enabled software here to stay?

Dan Schawbel: I mean Covid-19 has accelerated, amplified and prioritised a lot of the big workplace trends that have been going on for many years. We could have [started] working remotely more than ten years ago, but now it has forced companies to have more flexible workplace policies out of necessity for people's safety and security, which is a huge priority to jobseekers and employees when thinking about what company to stay with or work for. Between remote work and the rise of remote work, especially for knowledge workers as well as virtual learning, distance learning has become paramount to get ahead in the workplace even though employees are not physically in the office.

HL: It sounds like these futuristic trends that are emerging have been catalysed by the pandemic.

DS: The best example for this would be the CEOs' agenda from the beginning of the pandemic till now. Talent management was at the bottom but now it is the number one priority. It is about how to retain employees especially when competing for global talent now that the workplace is so decentralised, meaning that you could work from anywhere unless you are in a job that requires you to be on-site, like a doctor or nurse.

Now that the global talent pool is fully realised, it's apparent that a company could hire somebody from wherever they want for a knowledge worker position and at the same time, for someone who lives in another state or country, they can have the jobs that they normally have to relocate for anywhere.

The talent pool is so much wider, which is great in terms of opportunity for individuals. However, it is also more competitive because you're up against more people than you are before, but you have a chance in which you didn't have before.

HL: Trust needs to be both ways as much as I, as an employee, need to trust that my company is doing something about workplace safety implemented due to the pandemic. How then can the company trust you to get your job done when they can't see you?

DS: Trust is the biggest word right now. At the beginning of the pandemic, the biggest CEOs in the world had conversations that were focused on trust - How often are you communicating? Are you being honest with your workers? Are there necessary safety protocols in your office spaces and what does that look like? You can communicate trust by doing the right things, by communicating what you're doing and being a lifeline for workers. A lot of this trust had to have been built before the pandemic to fully leverage it during the pandemic.

You start to chip away at trust when you have a remote workplace even though remote workers are more productive, because people trust remote workers last.

The stigma around mental health and remote working are fading. One of the good things about this is that everyone is suffering at some level, which means everyone is more relatable and remote work has been destigmatised because it used to be; if you work remotely you were viewed as lazy, at home sitting on a couch drinking beer watching Netflix. Right now, there is no study that shows that remote workers are less productive, but how remote work connects to mental health and that people are working more hours during the pandemic. We've exchanged our time spent commuting for more time working. In the Oracle study, we found that people are working upwards of five or even ten more hours than they were before because of this exchange and thus that's led to burn out. So, the side effects of working remotely is a bigger mental health crisis.

HL: Anecdotally at the risk of generalising here in Asia, some of my friends have been telling me that their bosses want them back in the office as soon as possible. So, there is still that stigma about surrounding remote working.

DS: We know this is true, we know that there's a lack of trust. In a UKG study of over about 3,000 workers worldwide, we found that remote workers are trusted less than office workers even though they're more productive. This is a big thing because if you're not seen and heard, there is less trust. I think that's going to be destigmatised moving forward as more and more executives aren't in physical spaces but it is not going to be all or nothing because there is no one size fits all when it comes to these trends.

One of the bigger things is that we're all becoming more connected through technology, meaning that where you're living doesn't make as much of a deal. Of course, there are cultural norms. For instance, face time is pretty much still required to close a million dollar deal in Singapore. It'll be fascinating to see in the years to come, how Singapore changes, where so many people are working remotely and if that will change at all. If the pandemic were to last many years, maybe there would be a cultural change but if it's only until mid next year or so, then maybe not. Overall, it is going to be hard to make the case for workers that they have to be in a physical office space for five days a week after this global remote work experiment was successful.

HL: How can organisations continue to foster a socially connected workforce? One of the collateral damage of the pandemic is the connectedness that we feel with one another, or the lack of face-to-face time. Video calls just don't cut it, right?

DS: They don't cut it. In fact, if you've participated in a lot of Zoom calls earlier on, it was exciting and exhilarating, but now people are getting sick of it. There are a lot of negative feelings and connotations associated with Zoom, and I think that the Zoom fatigue has affected people's mental health. I have peers who are on seven or eight Zoom calls a day, and I think that's too many. There is [definitely] room for phone calls and regular means of communication.

A lot of leaders are making bold statements right now, “We're going to be remote only in the future.”, “We're going to be forcing people back into the physical office space when it's safe.”. Again, it's not one size fits all. A hybrid workplace and workforce is where we’re heading into the future; forcing someone to come to the office five days a week is not going to happen. And because everyone is in different situations, the nature of your job and life circumstances, or for instance an extrovert would want to have more time in a physical office space in comparison to an introvert, there are all these discrepancies. But, you win both ways [with a hybrid approach] - with remote work, you get to have a more flexible schedule, a little bit more independence; and with working from the office, you get more of the socialisation and that breeds creativity and innovation. I think the hybrid workforce is going to be the overarching model that works because you can get the best of both worlds with a hybrid approach.

HL: In your research and observations, have you seen that organisations recognise the hybrid workplace & workforce?

DS: Yes, I’ve seen companies that have gotten rid of their headquarters and now have decentralised offices. So in a sense, this co-working model where offices are decentralised, such as WeWork, is going to be a model that prevails.

At the same time, it is debatable how this is all going to play out because the cost of real estate leases have also gone down so much during the pandemic. We’ve seen tech companies sign leases in major cities [to attract] young workers as they prefer to work in cities. But, organisations should take advantage of decentralisation since the workforce is already spread.

The hybrid workforce means that people want some degree of flexibility regardless of the nature of their job. If companies are not providing it, and if they are promoting that you can’t work remotely, there is going to be a huge backlash and it will hurt them from a talent standpoint for years to come.

HL: It sounds like we're pretty far from ‘Back to Human’. How hopeful are you?

DS: I think we can use technology to connect in a human way, but I also do think that once things get safer, people are vaccinated and feel confident about the work environment, there is going to be a mass exodus away from homes and into planes, trains, and cars. If you travel for business, you'll [probably] not be able to get on a flight once things return to the new “normal”. It won’t be what we’ve seen in the past, and we can't say we won't get a pandemic in the future. So, I think there are going to be cycles, things will come around again and hopefully, we’ll be better prepared.

A lot of companies didn't have remote work policies or a lot of this set up. There was a scramble to figure out what to do, like disaster recovery or procedures. They never thought this would ever happen. No one did. It has been the hardest year of a leader’s life, ever. Now, we’ll be better prepared; leaders and HR departments have policies and procedures to follow in a way in which they didn't pre-pandemic, if something like Covid-19 pandemic was to happen again.

Listen to the full podcast to find out how technology was an integral part of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic:

Download the podcast.

For more, tune in to Prime Time with Howie Lim, Rachel Kelly & Finance Presenter JP Ong on weekdays from 4PM to 7PM.
#PrimeTime #Career360

This interview was broadcasted on MONEY FM 89.3 on 29 December 2020.

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