In early 2020, few would have anticipated that for so many people, the home office would become a year-long thing. We couldn’t have easily imagined how little we would commute, how much our hours would change, or how many colleagues would see the insides of our homes through a laptop camera.
But with the world looking ahead to open up, we’ve started to think about what elements of lockdown work life we should keep and what we might want to change. Expert authors from across the realms of business and technology share their thoughts to our big questions.
How has the Covid year disrupted our traditional understanding of a work day?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter and Rest:
The most important (and valuable) thing it’s done is show that workers can change and meet challenges faster than companies ever thought possible. What this means is that we should look at the reopening of businesses not as a chance to rush back to normal, but to create something better – to fix what was broken about how we worked, use the infrastructure of collaboration and remote work to shorten the workweek, and think hard about how we can design offices and norms in ways that make the office useful, productive, and special, rather than a drag on productivity that you have to drag yourself to.
It’s also revealed how rickety and improvised the structures many of us – especially working moms – had built to manage work, parenting, family, and home life truly were. Once schools started closing, the possibility of having normal work days blew up.
Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email:
The sudden shift to remote work revealed just how improvisational and informal our approach to work has become. It's hopefully a wake-up call that will encourage more intentional and structured approaches to how we collaborate.
Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work:
The initial impact hasn’t been great. The world of work has seen a 2 hour increase in the working day in the last decade and the last 12 months has seen an additional 45 minutes. It’s fair to say that a lot of people feel frazzled as we stumble into the summer.
What is a key way of breaking bad presenteeism habits, such as struggling to 'switch off'?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: Many of our habits regarding work and work-time are really cultural norms, not personal choices. So the first thing in breaking bad presenteeism habits is to act with your colleagues, your bosses, or your subordinates.
As a practical matter, this means: focus on the formal or unwritten rules about working time, communications, and expectations. Start with “no after hours” communications policies for 9-5 workers, and have a rota for things like after-hours customer inquiries.
Within the workday (whether at the office or remote), having “focus times” or “flow times” when people are allowed to focus on their core tasks and really get things done, and social times: it’s easy to imagine that a virtual fika or happy hour might feel awkward, but people will appreciate the clear boundaries and routines, and when you’re back in the office, it’s really powerful to have everyone together. Lead from the top: if the boss is still on Slack at midnight, that signals that anyone who wants to be promoted had better be, too.
Cal Newport: These types of issues become pronounced when work is largely unstructured and informal. In organisations that depend coordinating work with ad-hoc, unscheduled, back-and-forth messages, staying "plugged in" to this constant chatter becomes a poor proxy for productivity. In organisations that don't rely on the hive mind, there are fewer opportunities for empty presenteeism.
Consider, for example, software development teams that use agile methodologies to organise their work. They have a task board that clearly lists who is working on what. They have a daily status meeting, that is highly structured, in which everyone says what they did yesterday, what they're working on today, and what they need from others to get that work done. Then they just work. There's no real opportunity for presenteeism here. What matters is that you actually accomplish what you said you would.
Bruce Daisley: Thankfully the situation has got so bad that it’s facilitated a discussion about it. The experience of work for many people depends on their boss. If their boss is insecure or untrusting and checks to see if they are constantly online then this can be emotionally exhausting. The best thing that any of us can do is to try to draw boundaries between different parts of our life. That might mean a "virtual commute" when you go for a coffee or walk the dog each morning - whatever allows you to decompress a little.
What's standing in the way of the 9-5 culture being replaced by one based on deliverables?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: There’s a whole infrastructure built around the mistaken idea that bosses should use time at work as a measure of dedication and productivity. How do we get rid of that? In office work, start with practices: shortening the workday or workweek rewards people who can focus, prioritise and work quickly, not people who can sit in a chair for 12 hours. Shift from hourly to project billing. And for hourly workers, raise wages but eliminate overtime..
Bruce Daisley: Tradition and trust. I saw some mind-blowing data this week that I’m about to post a newsletter about. It said that the more diverse a company’s leadership is, the more likely they are to enable flexible or hybrid working. When your leadership is middle-aged white men then you’re the least likely to want to disrupt the way you’ve always done things. (I suspect this is because you’re most likely to be insulated from the stresses of the old world). Flexible working is a diversity issue and if your company talks inclusion but wants people out in the office you should feel free to call them out on it.
Do you think hybrid working will change the focus on London?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: I wouldn’t hold my breath that we’ll see a great dispersion of lawyers, software developers and therapists to villages and industrial cities. There are lots of factors that push workers to disperse or concentrate: high tech firms, for example, could in theory locate almost anywhere, yet Shenzen and Silicon Valley remain incredibly expensive, dense, and desirable. People have been trying to cut London down to size for a couple hundred years. If plague, railroads, and the Blitz didn’t do it, I don’t think that faster internet and COVID will, either.
Bruce Daisley: To some extent. People have always been attracted to cities and that will remain but we’ve also learned that we can do work from anywhere. Interestingly a survey of Silicon Valley start-ups asked them what they would do if they were setting up today and 40% said they would be fully remote. Nowhere has location mattered more than the Bay Area so this is huge sign that things have changed. There’s also a second order effect to consider, by most estimates the demand for office space is going to decline by around 20%, potentially heralding that space shifting to residential accommodation. Loft living in UK city centres is a strong possibility. It offers the thrilling prospect that our cities might be home to cheap accommodation that could bring artists and students to our high streets. I find it such a thrilling prospect - a chance for our cities to be buzzing again.
What’s one good way to change our working patterns away from a 9-5 thinking?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: I’d advocate for a four-day week. It's clear, super-simple, dead easy to measure, and incentivises cooperation and increased productivity and focus. It provides immediate feedback on workplace improvements: by Thursday you know if the changes you’ve made to meetings and work processes have paid off, or haven't.
Bruce Daisley: The big step that lays ahead for brave firms is asynchronous working. Not when you do the work, but the results you get from it. Right now most firms are so addicted to meetings (synchronous working) that this feels like a distant dream but more and more of the firms who do it will report that their team are happier and their culture is better.
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Image: Rob Dobi for Penguin