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What Happened to the Promised Future of Work?

November 15, 2022 Digital Workplace
Andrew Pope Headshot
By Andrew Pope

Office workers got a taste of what was possible during the pandemic. The dawn of an era of work from everywhere, work at any time. A more autonomous future was seemingly possible, where thanks to the transparency offered to us by our digital workplaces, we could align ourselves to goals rather than be micromanaged on tasks.

Fast-forward to today. Surely we must be emerging into worker utopia? An employee-centric way of work. The office, rather than being a workplace, becomes a place of connections and relationships. We have focus time when and where we need it — sitting by the pool or in a forest collecting our thoughts just like all of those glossy pictures of the future of work. Instead of back-to-back meetings, we collaborate with our colleagues asynchronously in places like Teams channels, with all of the information at hand that we need to work effectively. The boss checks in to see if we’re OK, but not to micromanage. We work according to goals, coordinating activities accordingly. And breathe.

Reality seems to be dishing up something altogether different.

Shouting at emails at the dinner table, swearing at emails when we want to nip out for lunch, another pointless meeting invite sent at the last minute, a sense of being always on and feeling that we should respond quickly no matter the time of day. Paints a different picture than our utopia, no? Sadly, this is also backed up by pesky data. The potential to be flexible is there. The reality isn’t — yet.

What's Standing Between Us and the Ideal Future of Work? 

More of the Same: Emails and Meetings

Even if we can make it to the Resort Paradiso to work on the beach, things aren’t much different. Email is still boss. In fact according to Swoop Analytics benchmarking data, most of the time we spend in Microsoft 365 is spent reading emails. On average, 80 minutes a day spent just reading the buggers.

But it's not all bad. It's worse. We spend much of our remaining leisure time at work in meetings. In fact, since the pandemic, the number of Teams meetings has increased by 153% globally. And it's not coming down. The future of work is more video meetings! And sure, there is a valid reason for much of this increase as we're spending less time in the office. But it's still a lot of time staring at a screen when we're not always involved. Multitasking is the new must-have skill.

Flexible work simply doesn’t work if we’re chained to emails, meetings and long days. This isn’t quite the people-centric and empowered way of work that we’ve been promised. The only flexible choice is choosing where we want to spend the 10 hours sat at a computer. Just a slightly more crap version of the old way of work.

Cue the Productivity Paranoia

But hey, at least we are more productive when we are in a hybrid working arrangement. In fact, Microsoft has found that 87% of us feel productive in our hybrid working world. High fives all around, here’s a glimpse of the future of work — perhaps we really are more productive when we have more control over our working environment. Except, massive downer, our managers don’t share this sentiment. In fact they don’t think we are being productive at all when we’re away from the office, with only 12% of leaders feeling that their hybrid teams are productive. Oh dear. From their perspective if they can't see you, they don't trust you. It’s hard to be empowered if our managers don’t think we’re doing any work.

In fact, this lack of trust is making things worse. What can leaders do to increase visibility when they can’t see or trust what their teams are up to? Good old Teams meetings to the rescue! We can all get together and tell everyone that we are very busy doing stuff. Except for while we're in this ‘yet another meeting.’ This leads to the productivity paradox: that we can only be productive if we are seen in meetings, which means that no-one gets any work done.

The worry is that this becomes a new habit. That even when we're in the office, we still communicate mostly with each other via Teams meetings and email rather than face-to-face communication. And all the while, trust is further being eroded. Crumbs, not really the future of work is it?

Related Article: Worried About Quiet Quitting? How to Create an Environment Where It Doesn't Happen

The Missing Ingredient

Here's the good news (finally): we all have the technology to do things so much better. To completely embrace a whole new way of work that empowers teams, that shifts the focus for routine matters from synchronous to asynchronous. Where we have a digital presence that provides visibility, accountability and connectedness. Where email isn't the default. Not only can this lead to more collaborative and productive teams, but also to more flexible working and shorter days.

But there's one ingredient needed for all of this: Yep, you've guessed it. Trust. Trust in our leaders, trust in our tools and trust in our colleagues.

I've worked with and coached teams that work on building digital trust. Teams that are able to set their own boundaries and norms. What sets them apart from more traditional teams is they collectively work out some basics: what needs to be a Teams meeting, what doesn't. When are we on and importantly, when are we off. What the default methods of collaboration and communication should be. Answering these questions focuses how we work, increasing visibility and decreasing collaboration overload. It allows us to take control of our day.

If we don't agree some basics and allow the team to take responsibility for these, the productivity paradox may be hard to escape. And that's not the future of work that we've been promised. Before we embark on a journey to the next piece of technology, whether it’s the metaverse or simply using Teams channels, we need to have a conversation.

Related Article: Always On, Too Many Meetings: Is This the Future of Hybrid?

About the Author

From environmental science beginnings to project management, knowledge management and innovation management, I’ve always appreciated how mature collaboration is critical to success of any project. Advising global investment banking and professional services sectors, I’ve worked on some wonderful knowledge and collaboration projects. My biggest challenge was being asked to help a global engineering firm be ‘more innovative.’ The experiences of all of this motivated me to co-establish Innosis, helping organizations focus collaboration towards innovation and continuous reinvention.

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