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What will work and workplaces look like after Covid-19?
Might we see this sudden, unplanned nationwide social experiment on working from home become a more permanent reality for some?
In the space of two days, Aotearoa New Zealand went to lockdown. We went home and stayed at home, venturing only to our gardens, walking around the block, visiting supermarkets and pharmacies.
Many of us started working from home. The lucky ones in many ways, still being paid, not having to run the Covid-19 gauntlet daily, and with optimism of employment post-lockdown.
We ask, will this social experiment cause us to question the way we have been conditioned to organise our work and workplaces, or will employers expect a return to the previous status quo?
We suggest that this crisis has afforded us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of work, what work means to us and what we want it to be.
So what have we learned since lockdown and what could this mean post-lockdown, if New Zealand and New Zealanders rise to the challenge of change?
People continue to work
Employees quickly adapted to working from home. Many were seen carrying monitors and chairs from their offices, and adapting spaces in their homes to accommodate these. In our hundreds of thousands we made it work, but it has required our employers to trust us. This means adopting an outcomes-based model of control, shifting the emphasis from time at work to the outcomes of work. Realising that it does not matter where and when you work as long as the job is done, and the results evident can be both liberating and daunting for managers and employees. Research demonstrates this leads to higher productivity and better results, but can be feared by poor managers. Great leadership requires setting clear job outcomes and expectations and supporting people to work how they see best as long as these outcomes are reached. The challenge to New Zealand employers is to continue this outcomes based model post-lockdown and trust their staff to do their job.
Flexibility can work
The benefits of work flexibility are well known and researched. Work becomes organised around our day (and all that occurs within it) rather than organising our day around work. This level of flexibility requires individual responsibility and organisational trust but provides worker autonomy that enables productivity and creativity to flourish. We know millennials crave flexibility, but the bureaucracy of many large organisations makes this difficult. Many organisations, especially in New Zealand, have been slow to implement flexible working practices. This social experience has shown that flexibility can work for many (but not all) employees. We urge organisations not to automatically move back to a control model based on the premise that ‘‘workers will only be productive if they are front of me at all times’’, rather build on this new model that starts with the stance of work can be flexible and then figure out together how to manage this work successfully.
For a long time we have heard about ‘‘teleworking’’, working away from our offices supported through information and communication technology. Yet there has been much organisational resistance to put into place the technology which supports this. Cost, security, trust and ability have all been touted as the reasons not to embrace these technologies. In the last weeks most New Zealanders have learned about Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Dropbox and even House Party as a form of connection and information sharing between colleagues, friends and family. The internet has not fallen over. Yes, there have been slow connections, and inequity in access to technical infrastructure but on the whole technology has worked, and people are working, learning and connecting. We challenge organisations to invest more in this technology to support flexibility and allow choice in how we work in the future.
Working families can work
We have seen numerous memes of the realities of working at home for families, but we are also seeing these families cope and be productive, even dancing and singing. Although just now this juggling is tricky, when schools return, working from home for a parent will look quite different. Will employers support their employees with increased flexibility to do the school run and self-manage time; affording families the opportunity to spend a greater amount of time together and reduce some of the household stress associated with rigid working hours?
Social connection still works
Questions around social isolation in both working from home, and in society more generally, have increased substantially in the last years as community and family support has reduced. In some ways Covid-19 has created a more even playing field, where nearly everyone is now socially isolated in their bubble. Technology has enabled some people to feel more connected because of the widespread use and acceptance of this temporary new normal. It is no longer just for the young-hearted but an important part of social connectivity. We challenge employers to remember this, when isolation is raised in the future as a reason not to support changes to work patterns and work spaces.
While recognising the benefits of lockdown working arrangements we recognise that some things do not work.
Working from home is largely represented by members of a privileged group within our communities — usually the professional middle class. Many will have overlooked the opportunity afforded to them of being able to work from home with full salary and technical support in the stress and angst of reorganising our work routines, delivering outputs and managing family responsibilities as we adjusted to this surreal experience of our Aotearoa lockdown.
Since lockdown, we have read in the media about companies that have not embraced fair and just working practices, with detrimental effects on their workers. We see people calling out these workplaces and some of the workers (for example, top level football players and CEOs expecting their staff to take pay cuts while they do not). On the contrary, we also see positive action like the Prime Minister herself opting for top-level government officials to take a 20% pay cut as well as some far more tokenistic actions by global elites.
What does all this mean for the future of work? The Work Futures Otago team urges organisations and employees to learn from this social experiment, to analyse it from their perspectives and to use this data to reflect on what the workspaces and places of the future might look like for New Zealanders. Do not automatically return to the previous status quo. Ask questions, pause reflect and create your new normal.
■The Work Futures Otago project at the University of Otago analyses and forecasts trends, future projections and potential disruptions in New Zealand.