Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a two-word phrase to the forefront of almost every English language publication—spread across headlines are endless discussions on the ‘new normal’. From cautious social gatherings to meticulously planned out travel itineraries, we can only imagine what a post-pandemic world might look like for us.
Naturally, workplace arrangements cannot help but enter into the foray. After all, the average person will spend about a whopping 30% of their entire life doing their job. For many office workers, working from home has become the new normal. For others, they’re already back in the office with a mask on.
There are also other changes to working life that came about in the last year that may signal what the “future of work” might look like. Albeit, only for a chosen few.
Rethinking office productivity
In April 2021, global recruitment agency Robert Half‘s survey of 1,000 workers in the U.S. found 1 out of 3 would quit their job if forced to return to the office full-time. As a counterbalance, one of the retention strategies suggested by the agency was flexibility, where employees should be given the capability to decide on their own working hours and patterns.
Consider Deloitte as an example: in Australia, the firm took the lead on this initiative, doing away with mandatory 9-5 office hours in favour of prioritizing workers’ productivity and well-being through supporting a conducive work-life balance.
This might sound iffy for old-school employers only familiar with traditional top-down management. They worry employee productivity will hit rock bottom.
But in 2019, RescueTime‘s data showed we would only clock in a staggering average of 2 hours and 48 minutes a day on productive tasks in front of our computers, and only 30 minutes of solid focus time. With such appalling statistics, don’t we need to consider alternatives?
Where we previously accepted crowded daily commutes to the office, some of us might have now realized that we can get just as much done remotely. But a home workspace is also a privilege—not everyone might have access to a solid internet connection or a quiet and private space of their own. In those cases, the onus really needs to fall on the company to provide workers with resources (such as covering the cost of a desk) to make their space more conducive to productive work.
Responding to collective worker burnout
Some people feel that working from home has added to increased stress levels due to the inability to ‘switch off’ at appropriate times as well as distractions (i.e. kids, pets, and anyone else in need of attention etc.) Add to that, many people haven’t been using their vacation time because… well, they don’t have many options on where to go and what to do.
The term “collective burnout” is now used to describe the feeling of an entire company full of people who are at their limit. In response, you’ve seen some companies take action to lessen this burden.
Here are some examples:
- Shopify gave employees every Friday off in July and August.
- LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shut down for a week to give employees time off.
- Some employers have offered employees stipends for babysitting and tutoring.
Aside from thinking about where people work, it’s also thinking about how people work. Even before the pandemic, throngs of the Icelandic workforce reported immense fatigue owing to long work hours and productivity stagnated as a result.
Alda and Autonomy ran two large-scale trials with 2,500 Icelandic workers across a variety of professions in public service, where work weeks were reduced to 35-36 hours with no cuts in pay. The outcome? Productivity and well-being conversely skyrocketed while revenue remained neutral. Now, about 86% of Iceland’s workforce have adopted these practices. Spain is also testing such trials and even Japan, notorious for its grind culture, is looking to give it a shot.
However, to say that Iceland’s positive results were just a by-product of working fewer hours would be remiss. Of course, spending less time at work would be beneficial to achieving a more fulfilling work-life balance, among other things. But a core tenet of the study was that a reduction in hours could not lead to things being completed at a slower pace. To proceed with the trial, these workplaces were then forced to finally confront long-standing organizational errors such as drawn-out meetings and non-essential tasks.
In short, things could finally get done with supreme efficiency when employers and employees alike learned how to streamline and get rid of unnecessary procedures. Think about it: how much faster would you be able to get your work done if that two-hour meeting was condensed to a single email? And would there be a need for constant face-to-face contact if clear modes of communication and streamlined processes were established?
Long before the pandemic, workers needed change
We work long hours in closed-off spaces, ferreting between our desks and meeting rooms and feeling unaccomplished. Employers need to consider changes in the workplace if they want to retain their workers amidst a trend of global introspection.
But this is not to say that the pandemic alone is necessitating these changes—it is merely a catalyst. In a 2019 study by Randstad, 56% of the global population sampled stated that employers expected them to be available beyond working hours, while 59% would reply immediately when contacted. This shows that the work part of one’s work-life balance takes precedent.
Pre-pandemic, companies were also already realizing that employee mental health was a salient issue. Many began setting a budget for wellness programs and packages, but unfortunately, these incentives do nothing to address the mounting problems in organizational culture such as poor communication and conflicts in priorities which heavily affect employee happiness and productivity.
Will the higher-ups be thinking about what the workers want? Well, that’s hard to say—as soon as COVID numbers eased slightly, some companies were eager to ship their employees back into their offices despite objections, while others who continue to work from home might face overbearing managers who require their subordinates to constantly check-in.
Hopefully, Iceland’s case will convince more companies that traditional work models are outdated and detrimental to advancement. And if even somewhere like Japan is willing to consider these alternatives, what is holding the rest of us back? Now more than ever is the perfect time to implement change.
Where does Canada stand in all of this?
As Canada’s vaccination program continues to go strong, companies can reconsider their WFH policy. Some closed their offices for good while many have allowed employees to enjoy a “hybrid” solution—working both at the office and at home. Some companies doing the hybrid solution still want to bring employees back into the office full-time once it is really safe enough to do so. Closing all offices for good, as some speculated could happen, is still very much a fantasy.
WFH policies had been on the rise since before the pandemic, but certainly, COVID-19 sped them up. But concerns about social distancing are not the only health matter to consider when people have been secluded away in their homes, away from family and friends, and dealing with a major worldwide crisis. Burnout, stress, and depression are all issues that impacted workers as well. However, only a handful of companies responded to those mental health issues. Even fewer companies offered support to families managing children who were online learning.
So while there are often viral articles on LinkedIn about the latest cool workplace policy, let’s remember this: much of the Canadian workforce is still operating by the same rules.
The “future of work”, as it is often called, doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s nice to retain some hope as we see individual companies make encouraging moves or entire countries shift their way of thinking—but at the end of the day, many of us have to contend with our unchanged reality. You may be working remotely now, but you also may have more meetings than ever.