What is the future of communication going to look like? What combination of home, office, hub, spoke, virtual, blended/hybrid, live, face-to-face and we-don’t-know-yet is going to be your daily working experience? And how will that affect your home, your working hours, your friendships, your ability to convince your senior colleagues that you deserve your promotion, your pay? The only advice we can give readily is this: don’t believe anyone who claims to know the answer to that question at this stage.
We’ll share with you some of the things we’ve been reading and hearing. First though, I’d like to step back a moment and talk about the fact that what we are anticipating is a radical change that may deeply affect our working lives.
The digital revolution
At 51, I’m old enough to remember life before the first digital revolution of the 80s very clearly. And what I remember is that virtually nobody saw what that revolution would eventually bring. People talked about the tech but nobody was able to predict how life would be changed by it.
In the late 90s came the internet, which seemed nothing special for a few years and then became the key to everything. The smartest people back then were the ones who were emphasising that it was a big roll of the dice but weren’t trying to predict how it would all play out. They were saying where the change would come from and that the change would be huge. Try this 1996 Wired interview with Steve Jobs for someone putting their finger on the issues. Or this widely-shared 1999 clip where David Bowie explains to Britain’s foremost news interviewer why the internet is going to change life on Earth.
The case for returning to the office
One of the great advantages of being with Working Voices, a small but global communications consultancy, is the close network of colleagues I have around the world who feed into my understanding of what’s going on. Last week I put a question to them and received some telling replies.
I began by emailing this comment from the head of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, warning that for his company working from home (WFH) was ‘an aberration’ that they wanted to reverse as quickly as possible. Most of the leaders in his sector who have spoken out agree with Solomon: Jes Staley at Barclays said current levels of WFH were not ‘sustainable’. However, the consensus among them seems to be that things won’t be exactly the same as before. Many more office workers will do part of the week from home: JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon puts it at 30% permanently at home, with others rotating. Sergio Ermotti of UBS also predicts about one third.
Support for WFH
Tech companies are more gung-ho, it seems. Spotify has just made ‘work from anywhere’ a key part of its current recruiting offer. Twitter and Facebook have made the same kind of announcement, according to Forbes.
Mark Dixon, who founded Regus, a serviced office provider that now operates in over a hundred countries, predicts another change: local workplaces. So instead of literally working from home, more people will work from their home town or neighbourhood – villages, predicts Dixon, will all have a workspace. He has skin in the game because he rents office space. But I mention him because he opens up a third possibility: increased localised working, as opposed to actually using your own living space.
Almost everyone agrees that we’re looking at a mixture of time spent in and out of the office and that we’re going to call this ‘hybrid working’. But beneath the consensus is a nest of unanswered questions.
Who are the 30% who will work from home?
- Some people prefer working from home. Some people prefer the office. But these preferences may not be related to how well they work in that environment or whether their tasks are suited to it. So who is going to look at that?
- If a Spotify worker wants to only ever work from Starbucks, that’s great, but does that mean he or she will never meet their colleagues? Can that succeed without loss of value to the company?
- Can we get to know our colleagues meaningfully from sporadic meet-ups, or do we need to work alongside them?
- Wealthy middle-aged home-owners are happy to work in their adapted spare room or garden office. Less wealthy juniors might not want to work from their bedrooms. Are we in danger of drifting into a generational divide or a hierarchy around work location?
- For decades, managers have worried about ‘silos’ and separation. If, for example, all the fee-earning professionals work from the office and the business support are rarely there, what effect could that have on corporate cohesion?
What about working hours?
- If people are working at different and unpredictable times, won’t collaboration be harmed?
- One advantage of the office is that you feel you’re earning your money simply by being there. For those with a strong work ethic, or an unstable job, working from home can lead to ‘work creep’, where no part of the day or room in the house is sacrosanct. How can work/life balance survive that?
- How does the office accommodate a meeting attended by the whole team without having a lot of empty space the rest of the week? If workers spend 40% less time at the office but all do Monday and Friday from home, then there is no reduction in office space needed, so no saving for the employer.
- Do the apprentice culture, collaboration and innovation all stem from us all being there at the same time, not in and out at different times?
Are we mining the value of being in the office – or at home?
- Many office workers put headphones on and sit in front of two large screens; they might as well be in a soundproof underground bunker. If you’re going to insist people commute to work, how will you make it worthwhile?
- Are those working from home reaping the benefit (aside from the saved commuting time)? Do leaders have the ability to detect and deal with signs of deteriorating mental health – something that has ripped through the population in lockdown?
- What if we’re running meetings with some people in the room and others joining remotely? We’ve all done this at some point and not many would feel it’s a recipe for a great meeting…
Is the stigma of WFH finally gone?
- ‘Presenteeism’ where long hours at the desk are a badge of honour will not disappear overnight. Is it an unspoken driver behind the return to offices? Will some leaders stick with a ‘last man standing’ mentality, where the person who makes the most sacrifice for the cause is the one who deserves the greatest rewards?
How do we get there from here?
- We are dealing with a workforce emerging from lockdown with different needs, demands, ideas and states of mental health. Are we geared up to lead them through a turbulent transition period? Will the turbulence itself be perceived as ‘the new normal’ with damaging effects on morale, productivity and coherence?
- How does each manager know that she or he is getting this right – especially if it doesn’t all fall into place straight away?
The role of communication consultants like Working Voices is to help people prepare for this uncertain future. It would be a grave error to wait and see how all this shakes down before doing anything. We have courses that tackle these specific challenges of hybrid working:
People sometimes think you can’t prepare until you know what you’re preparing for. But the most valuable preparation of all is where, instead of betting on one outcome, you’re envisaging as many as you can, and positioning yourself wisely as the future unfolds.