The changing world of work
This year has seen the biggest shift in working practices in the UK since the industrial revolution, and both companies and workers have had to completely change the way they work. And while the fears about terrible productivity of remote or flexible working proved overstated (at least in the short term) the wellbeing and connection of remote workers have been, and will continue to be, tougher issues to handle.
In a recent speech to the Engaging Business Summit, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist and Executive Director of the Bank Of England, spoke about the impact that the pandemic has had on the way people work in the UK, and what that means for the wellbeing and productivity of people and the UK economy.
Pre-Pandemic studies on the effectiveness of homeworking, such as the one used in our blog Flexible Working: How Well Does it work? , suggested a 13% increase in productivity. Studies from the height of the previous lockdown (April/ May) suggested the inverse was true- there was a drop in productivity of around 7% in a study carried out in Japan, and similar evidence can be found in UK studies.
The difference is perhaps not surprising, as mandatory home working thrust unprepared people into remote working from kitchens, bedrooms, and attics, says Andy Haldane, Chief Economist and Executive Director of the Bank Of England. “That meant, for many, not only a worse working environment but a steep learning curve as they adapted to new ways of working”. While those who worked remotely before the pandemic had suitable training, facilities (and probably a job role that lent itself to remote working), this was not true of many who worked from home in April.
Wellbeing matters hugely in the workplace, not only in its own right but due the fact that happier people tend to be more productive. Unsurprisingly, workplace anxiety is higher than in previous years, but despite longer working hours, workplace wellbeing has risen since pre-lockdown levels, due mainly to two factors: commuting and empowerment. As Mr Haldane pointed out “commuting ranks just after death and divorce in the unhappiness stakes”, so it is not surprising that people are enjoying not having to commute.
The other factor improving wellbeing in recent months is the increased empowerment that comes with working remotely. “This could arise in part from the increased flex home-working gives us, with our working days now tailored more to our personal needs and less to organisational requirements” Mr Haldane said, but “Just as the short-term productivity cost of an abrupt shift to home-working might be overstated, so too might the short-term happiness benefits.”
It is well established that creativity and collaboration fosters innovation and growth, the long-term impacts of remote working on these essentials ingredients of success will be a defining part of the long-term future of home working. And while a lack of distractions is helpful for creativity, “exposure to new and different experiences – environments, ideas, people – is a key source of creative spark”, according to Mr Haldane “So too are random conversations and chance meetings, serendipity being the cradle of creativity”.
“The key point here is that homeworking can starve us of many of these creative raw ingredients – the chance conversation, the new person or idea or environment. Home-working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom”. In addition to this, the ‘social capital’ so important for collaboration is almost impossible to build with new people, leading to lower employee engagement, collaboration, and innovation in the longer term.
What does the Future Hold?
This pandemic has reshaped our working lives in a way that has not been seen since the industrial revolution, and the effects will be profound not only in the months, but also in the years to come. It remains to be seen as to what exactly the increased level of remote and flexible working will mean to both people and companies in the long term.
While remote and flexible working has been much better than anyone expected in the first 2 or 3 months, it appears short term benefits created by novelty, necessity and social capital will likely be reversed in the long term, but exactly how it will play out remains to be seen.