We had the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and were well into the Digital Age when a Coronavirus shaped meteorite collided with the Earth.
We may look back on recent history and define the world of work as BC (Before Coronavirus), and AC (After Coronavirus). Aside from ACBC sounding like a rock band which got mixed up with a power supply, the pandemic has provided a shock to the system which has supercharged many of the trends that were already emerging in BC times.
We’d been talking about technologies such as cloud, 5G, collaboration tools and artificial intelligence (AI) as ingredients for a primordial soup which would evolve our ways of working. It was always assumed that AI was going to be the catalyst, not a virus.
Undoubtedly, the future will feature AI – with 80% of execs in our new global ‘Beyond the office’ research believing that it will eventually take out the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks. However, the AC world is also likely to be dominated by climate change challenges - with 62% of global execs suggesting that the collaboration tools which have been a massive feature of the pandemic could also be used to significantly reduce travel, and carbon emissions.
If we are going to learn lessons from this pandemic and come out with richer, more sustainable strategies for the future world of work, we probably need to take a step back and figure out what we want to achieve. According to our research, there are three key business priorities for the digital office – improving productivity, improving customer experience, and enabling work from anywhere strategies.
For the latter, the virus has been extremely effective in creating a shift in perception around where work can be done, at least for execs and knowledge workers. 91% of execs in our research said they like having a choice of work settings including offices, customer premises, their home, or local co-working spaces. Four out of five are spending more time using collaboration tools (which is impressive considering that one in two said that they didn’t know how to use them in our research just two years ago). 51% also believe that they are more productive than they were BC.
Despite this, actual productivity gains aren’t as clear cut. Although 58% report a positive shift in employee wellbeing, many are also saying that their working day has been intensified. Our research shows that 60% feel pressure to be “always on” (a particular problem amongst younger execs). Longer hours and the inability to stop living at work tends to produce stress and burnout, rather than a more productive workforce (an issue which we examined in our ‘Balanced Business Communications Diet’ paper).
Video has been the big winner during the pandemic. 20% of business execs said they were doing at least 5 video calls per day. Two thirds said that they couldn’t imagine life without video. But, because meetings are now frictionless, we can end up creating an impending sense of Zoom every hour of every day.
The problem isn’t video… it’s meetings! We’ve lifted a BC way of working into an AC world without questioning whether meetings are the best ways to get things done. Remote organisations in the BC world had already adopted a more asynchronous way of working, e.g. using tools such as chat and shared documents, and having shorter mutually agreed windows for meetings rather than everlasting “death by meeting” days.
The reports of the demise of the office are also much exaggerated. They had already been undergoing a bit of a transformation BC, as people realised that they were key collaboration platforms, rather than places we necessarily do work. 88% of business execs now feel that future offices will primarily fulfil that collaboration and community function. Younger execs believe that offices are likely to become places where younger employees will work, as older employees are mostly based at home.
The AC way of working is likely to be less about where we work, and more about how we work – it’s about hybrid working. However, it is easy to create “horrible hybrids” where tribes become…tribal.
The worst example of a “horrible hybrid” in the BC collaboration world was the meeting where half the people were in the room and the other half remote. Out of sight was often out of mind, as the room tribe forgot that the remote tribe even existed. What digital collaboration has demonstrated is that connection is easier when everyone is connecting remotely. So this particular “horrible hybrid” will likely default to being 100% digital, otherwise you end up with the worst of both worlds.
The foundations of the new AC digital office are in place. The rest depends on whether we can transform BC thinking into AC, because the most disruptive part of any epoch isn’t the technology, or a virus, it’s us!