Neil Pilkington draws up findings from his Future of Work event and survey
Last month I was joined by a group of senior technology leaders and our sponsors, Netskope, in the fabulous surroundings of the Haymarket Hotel for lunch. We had come together to discuss the future work, what it meant to us and how we thought it would evolve. The discussion, as you might imagine, ranged far and wide, encompassing many topics that face organisations across all sectors. Gathered here are some of the most passionately debated topics, underpinned by the statistics we gathered from our survey, which many of you completed. The full survey results can be found here.
The generation gap was discussed in some detail and seemed to have multiple influences depending on the positional outlook. Many had observed that the younger generations and often correspondingly more junior staff, preferred being in the office more often. Extrapolating this to the next generation of workers, i.e., our children, most agreed that they are already more comfortable dealing with each other and the world, remotely. As parents, we often worry about the time our children spend in virtual world. While the general direction of travel in technology, would suggest that they are in fact making ready for a more virtual ‘Meta’ workplace. It is likely that this preference will be catered to, as technological invention is driven by the necessity of the changing workplace.
Conversely, many more senior workers ‘middle to upper management’, seem very happy to be working remotely. The main reasons given for this is a better work life balance that it affords. There is also much less need, at this level, for the ‘in role’ learning and development that is required by more junior staff. At this level, many of the leaders I interview in the fulfilment of searches ask, “what is the hybrid policy of my clients?”. They are not however primarily interested in their own ‘days in the office’. Many of them are trying to move away from inflexible cultures that have affected their ability to deliver against targets. High levels of attrition due to lack of flexibility and a similarly effected ability to attract new talent, leave them unable to succeed and to deliver. This is a story I have heard often and one that was reflected in our survey. In many cases this has also been described as a generational issue of another kind, where the culture of a business is set by leaders who cannot move away from presenteeism.
Empirical evidence across all sectors has shown that productivity can increase slightly where ‘purposeful’ hybridism is engaged. The idea that we must see people in the office before we believe they are working is finally it seems, debunked. Right at the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown, a client said to me “if I don’t trust someone to work from home, I certainly don’t trust them to work in the office”, a sentiment that was shared by our panel and one that led to a discussion about the effects of hybridism on performance and how this has been observed. The polarisation effects of hybridism on productivity have been observed by many. This being the effect where already high performing people became more productive at home. Conversely, lower performing employees tended towards reduced productivity out of the office. Whilst this was seen as a negative to begin with, it has led to more targeted efforts to engage and motivate employees. Or, in some cases to take the opportunity to strengthen teams.
A move to hybrid working also requires a change of management style, where trust can be the biggest issue for some leaders. Some will inevitably struggle with what amounts to evolution, from a presenteeism, input-based management style, to a trust-based output measured leadership model. This transition to leadership will not be easy for everyone, as it often requires a completely different personality type. Many businesses I have spoken to have already implemented training coaching and development programmes, to help their management teams evolve. This was echoed by both the group at lunch and again at events I have attended subsequently.
In our survey 63% of respondents said that they had taken the opportunity to reduce office footprint. This was often as a reaction to the lack of use in the short term and as a money saving activity. The most forward-thinking businesses are reinvesting those savings into more flexible meeting spaces, funding travel costs for employees and on the training and other activities, that will be needed to drive ‘purposeful’ hybridism. In some cases, for instance large scale outsourcing, the reduction in property portfolio has funded bid activities for early actors, allowing them to make lower bids. This has left little choice for competitors but to follow suit or lose market share. In others like manufacturing, it has only served to widen the gap between management and the shop floor, as office-based staff benefit from opportunities that cannot be offered to those in the factory. It has also meant that as people have come back to work there is no longer enough space for them, as many of our survey respondents commented. Interestingly, as the value of the global commercial property market has reduced in value, to the tune of ~25%, this could lead to some innovative new opportunities for smart investors.
Another common theme in the survey and on the day was the impact of hybrid working on the geographical accessibility of talent. However, “We can now hire staff anywhere”, cuts both ways and seems overall to be cancelling out the opportunities for employers and employees. Some of my clients are deliberately based in areas, where costs and salaries are low but talent scarcer. They are finding it much easier to hire new talent further afield, including overseas. Those same clients are losing the talent they already have, to competitors who can pay ‘London rates’, to attract experienced hires, who now no longer need to relocate to the city to access those salaries. I wonder, somewhat ironically, if these unforeseen events may be the catalyst that actually ‘levels up’ the north of England?
Another potential issue here was expressed by the 23% of our survey respondents that said they were likely to increase their investment in outsourcing/offshoring because of hybrid working. On more than one occasion clients have commented that, “if a team insists that they really don’t ever need to be in the office, I question if they need to be in the country and would it therefore be better to have the function outsourced/offshore?”
The idea that any business decision should be taken without first gathering information, seems preposterous to most of us. It makes sense then, that any forward-thinking organisation, would poll its workforce, before deciding how to address wide reaching changes in working conditions. One size no longer fits all and good talent will now migrate to a more flexible environment. In the same way that they did for better fiscal benefits in the past. However, should we be allowed to remove ourselves from the work environment entirely? Wellbeing and the effects of hybrid working on it, are not yet fully understood and may not be for some time. There is a much greater role to be played by all of us in looking after the wellbeing of our colleagues, which we had begun to see, even before the pandemic. Some made the point that allowing too much flexibility would lead to managers setting their own stamp on the cadence of hybrid working, possibly causing discord across the business, disrupting cultural growth. I believe that there is a much greater role to be played here by HR, as architects, facilitators, and communicators. As we start to move into what will be the third phase of this evolution. We may also see the emerging role of ESG Director taking a broader human centric role in the future. Whoever shoulders the responsibility, we will need to find new and innovative ways to create culture, particularly for the next generation of workers.
One of our open survey questions asked what companies were doing to preserve culture and engagement. This is a question that all businesses are asking, if not for now then certainly for the future. I have placed many people into new roles during the pandemic, who are only now meeting their team in the flesh. That is hard enough if you are senior, experienced, and self-sufficient. It is the more junior new starters that will need the most attention going forward but this means that it becomes everyone’s responsibility to help them succeed. How we build this feeling of responsibility, loyalty and commitment will evolve over time but here are some of the things you are already doing:
L&D Programs – Integration/Induction days with new starters as part of a commitment to culture. Some businesses have said that they will expect new joiners at a junior level to work the first six months in the office every day. Others have asked more senior members of staff to commit some of their office dates, to working alongside new joiners, to create better learning environments, leading in turn to better cultural alignment.
Onboarding – Creating much more comprehensive onboarding programs, which include coaching and mentoring, shared outside reporting lines. Often included as part of the services provided by search partners.
FOMO – creating wide social programming to run alongside office days – encouraging more people to subsequent events with media and coms designed to create fear of missing out.
Clear & Frequent Communication in all things – this may sometimes seem over the top but helps to keep people feeling included.
Hybrid working arrangements are now essential to the attraction and retention of great talent, though balance is necessary to preserve wellbeing in the workplace and at home. This will require flexibility on both sides and an honest dialogue, to enable the best outcomes for everyone. Many people both in the survey and in general, have spoken about focussing on what is core to the business. Major economic change events are often catalysts for this type of thinking, where businesses will look at what their core propositions are and prune away any ancillary activities. If for instance a retail business has in house call centre operations but are struggling to maintain a balance of hybrid working and office space, they might decide to outsource that element of service delivery.
Without culture, businesses will lose identity and talent. Training will be a key feature of successful hybrid working. Bringing people together, allowing managers to become leaders – managing productivity through output rather than presenteeism. The current average days in the office across all sectors in the UK is 2.5. I expect that this is a number that will remain static, but those days in the office will become less arbitrary and more purposeful. According to a recent survey, fewer than one in twenty will return to pre pandemic levels of office-based days so it is fair to say that we are not going back. We have reacted to a pandemic and stabilized under these new circumstances. The real work, however, is before us, as we move into the third phase of this evolution and begin to find ways of working together. Agility is key, not just in how we serve our businesses and employees now but how we continue to evolve. It is unlikely that the pace of change in our world will slow and the most valuable skill in the future of business, will be the ability to adapt and lead through change. So at least there’s no change there…