The Jury Is Out on the Future of Work
Work has transformed into a big experiment. As much as we try to identify, understand and label what's happening and what's to come, no one has a definitive answer.For example, the Great Resignation’s association with the pandemic is gospel to many, yet Harvard professors Joseph Fuller and William Kerr argue that the idea is “overblown.” They posit the current state of the workplace is not a short-term bout of turbulence provoked by the pandemic, but rather a continuation of a long-term trend. In the 2022 Harvard Business Review article "The Great Resignation Was Not Caused by the Pandemic," Kerr and Fuller note that: “Data on total employment from 2009 to 2019 reveals the Great Resignation is not a pandemic-driven anomaly.”
For a long time, we have been told that The Great Resignation is caused by employees reconsidering their relationship with their jobs, what they are willing to put up with and the size of their paychecks. In a 2022 article published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Donald Sull, Charles Sull and Ben Zweig wrote that: “Much of the media discussion about the Great Resignation has focused on employee dissatisfaction with wages. How frequently and positively employees mentioned compensation, however, ranks 16th among all topics in terms of predicting employee turnover.”
By contrast, a report by researchers Kim Parker and Juliana Menasce Horowitz of the Pew Research Center found the majority of workers who quit their job in 2021 said low pay (63%), no opportunities for advancement (63%) and feeling disrespected at work (57%) were the reasons why they quit.
Who's right? It could be that the sentiments and actions of workers are fluid regardless of the conclusions well-intended experts reach. The reality is we haven’t settled in, according to American professor, lecturer, author and podcast host Brene Brown. She calls this period “The Great Awkward,” and isn't yet ready to say that working remotely is a good idea.
“We’re not OK. Our kids are falling apart. So, I just want to challenge the myth that COVID was a great working remote success story, because I just don’t think we’ve got the data to say that, and just like we don’t have the data to say it worked, we don’t have the data to say that all the problems, the partnerships, the marriages, the kids, the mental health struggle were due to remote work. There’s a lot of other things going on,” Brown said in a podcast earlier this year.
All things considered, it’s worth considering the following ideas in regards to the future of work.
Offices as a Tool
“Offices are tools,” said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of "Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere." In a LinkedIn Live interview hosted by HBR, she said: “We need to think of offices as tools as we would any digital tools that will enable us to do remote work. And if we think of offices as tools for collaboration purposes and innovation purposes, we go there when we were about to do some ideation or some creative work, not just to do the things that we would do normally from home.”
She added that young people — or anyone who is early in their career — want to be in the office more frequently. Although this can be a good thing, Neeley noted that oftentimes it's futile for workers to come in when no one is around to help them. "So, there’s some coordination that needs to take place there,” she said.
Neeley also recommended that employees meet with their co-workers from time to time. These meetings should be coordinated and communicated in advance.
“We’ll come in the office to do these particular tasks, to work on these problems. Once a month, we’ll spend four, five hours together to do this. You just have to be thoughtful about what you want to do when you bring people in,” she said.
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A Different Argument for a 4-Day Workweek
“Work is good for people by and large. People benefit from working in all sorts of different ways. The way we work is not great at all in this country. What we do, is we work way too hard in the middle of our life and then we work very little toward the end of our life. In some sense, this reflects our response for longer lives in general. That as we inherited from our ancestors in the 20th century, 30 extra years, in average, of life expectancy. And what we did was to tack all those years onto the end and only retirement, only old age got longer .... One of the problems that we faced is that we’ve tended to just push all these extra years into the existing social norms and cultural practices. Instead, we have an opportunity to rethink that. What I’d like to see us do is to work many more years and fewer days in the week and hours in the day. And I think we could improve quality of life,” said Carstensen.
The four-day work week grants employees more time to spend with their families, be they parents of young children or caregivers for aging parents, without sacrificing their careers. Moreover, an increasing number of individuals who want to work beyond retirement are perceived as incapable because of their age. While that may have been true in the past, back-breaking labor in factories and farms is not as common in the digital age.
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It's Cheaper to Keep ’Em
The Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the world haven’t learned that laying off workers now and trying to replace them later is more expensive than retaining and adapting their skills during slow periods. Leaders must acknowledge that workers can be a source of value creation in their down time and that replacing them forgoes productivity, institutional knowledge and recruitment dollars. Moreover, investing in workers can lead to strong, positive culture changes — underinvesting or ignoring them altogether can leave companies vulnerable to consumer and worker pressure.
"Labor market dynamics have fundamentally changed: time-to-hire, recruiting costs, and hiring costs have all grown substantially,” Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter told Inc. Magazine. “(Companies are) already generating vacancies more quickly than they'd want, and their hiring processes are struggling to keep up.”
The employers who realize this often utilize “labor hoarding,” a practice that has recently reemerged. “If you layoff an employee, it can cost six- to nine-months salary just to replace them. That could wipe out potential short-term financial benefits from a layoff in the first place," said Patrick Glynn, a writer at Insight Global.
To sum it up, the workplace is in flux. One group of experts cannot speak for the masses, but unfortunately the ones who shout the loudest and whose voice is echoed the most often appear to speak the truth. It’s important to recognize there are other voices to consider. Only then can we make well-informed decisions about the future of work.