Through the global Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses were forced to adapt to social distancing protocols in order to keep operating. The period has served as an experiment for many organisations to test new ways of working, and the changes ushered in have the potential to redefine the shape of the workplace of the future. What will our workplaces look like in 10 years’ time?
“I think we’re in the middle crossroads right now,” says Maeve Houlihan, an associate dean and director at UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business. “We’ve broken through the pain barrier around working from home. There was a big question around trust with people working remotely, and the reality is this: people generally feel very enabled when they work from home, and generally they work very hard.”
Remote working has already been a growing trend in recent years, particularly with larger tech companies. A survey by Global Workplace Analytics and Flexjobs last year tracked a 159 per cent increase in remote work since 2005, while a two-year Stanford University study showed a very significant productivity boost associated with remote working, alongside a 50 per cent drop in employee attrition.
The pool of people remote working surged over the past three months, with CSO statistics showing that almost half of the population in Ireland had changes in their employment through the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than a third of those affected starting to work from home.
If the workplace of the future is to be remote, then organisations need to find new ways to support employees through that, suggests Houlihan. “I think the role of managers has become more important,” she says. “Companies will be trying to tackle the problem of having employees work from a distance and the secret is going to lie, on the one hand in communication channels, and on the other hand with managers. By that I mean managers becoming conduits for connecting people and ideas. They can be a good way to close the gap and maintain a sense of connection, to see when people need more structure, or have too much on their plate. To be able to do that, especially at a distance, means having good relationship management.”
The move toward remote working involves a much more collaborative approach between employer and employee, a model which organisations with natural geographic distance between hubs are already aware of.
Mark Latuske is deputy director of people and culture (employee experience) at Ulster University, and has overseen a dramatic change in the organisation's structure for the past two years. "Ulster University is pretty unique in that we do not have one core campus with some satellite campuses," he says, "rather it is built around having four core campuses across Northern Ireland, in Belfast, Coleraine, Jordanstown and Magee."
Latuske’s background as a consultant in the banking and retail sectors allowed him to focus on developing a connected experience for Ulster University employees. “Up until two years ago we had separate departments that looked at health and safety, equality and human resources, and we have brought all of those matters together” says Latuske. “The shift is really about seeing people as people, rather than as resources, and thinking about the right sort of culture that we’re trying to create and being led by that. While my side of people and culture is focused on the connected employee experience, we have also set up a programme and director to look at the student experience as well. It is really clear to me that the way you enhance the student experience is by making sure that the employee experience is the best that it can be, because you can’t have one without the other.”
A key factor to change at Ulster University has been the idea of collaboration with employees. “Rather than making decisions in a back room, we have tried to engage with all our colleagues across the campuses in a new way,” says Latuske. “It is about taking the time to go to each of the locations to talk through all of the new elements that we’re designing and make it a co-creative process. From those interactions we have developed new organisational values, which have been driven by colleagues across the campuses, and we’ve implemented a new people manager development programme, which we’ve co-designed with colleagues across the four campuses.”
If the future of the workplace involves more employee autonomy in terms of conditions and protocol, then that future seems to offer increased potential for meaningful work.
“The workplace has become a source of both meaning and meaninglessness for many,” says Dr Stephen J Costello, founder-director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland.
Costello’s background as a philosopher and therapist has opened up opportunities to work as a corporate consultant, helping organisations structure in a way that encourages meaningful employee engagement.
“The difference between work as a curse and work as a blessing lies mainly in our attitude towards it,” says Costello. “Creating meaning may well be the most important of managerial tasks, it is also the most practical and profitable.
“As an example of finding meaning in work, take a New York post-office worker, who saw her role as akin to a message-deliverer at the very heart of the Information Age,” says Costello. “She took seriously the words inscribed on the General Post Office building in New York, which were quoting Herodotus: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’. In so doing, she saw and served a higher purpose.”
The workplace of the future may look more dispersed, but through the trends and structures that organisations are developing now, it has the potential to offer a more meaningful and connected employee experience.
“We spend one-third of our life preparing for work or working, so the goal is to bring meaning and purpose into the world of work,” says Costello. “Meaning and purpose are essential to the mental health and flourishing of every individual.”