01 Dec The Workplace in Flux
Susan Kreeger and Emma Wiggans
The pandemic was an outsized disruption to the workplace, and as we seek to rebuild and move forward from it, it can feel like everything is in flux. But, the workplace has always changed in response to changes in technology, culture, the economy, and the job market. While the current disorder and particular constellation of options employers must now parse is a thoroughly contemporary predicament, examining how we got to the former status quo and major shifts can provide insight as we make sense of the current state of work and forge ahead into the future. In the article, we will discuss:
- The Evolution of the Workplace
- The Pandemic as a Catalyst
- Embracing the Future of Work
The Evolution of the Workplace
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries moved the sites of production from homes, farms, and workshops to an increasing number of factories deploying machinery with greater and greater levels of automation. People used to live lives defined by the hours of sunlight and seasons of the year had to adapt to structured schedules and regulated workplace expectations governed by strict hierarchies and a new-found focus on efficiency at any cost.
Most people are familiar with the term “Luddite” to describe someone resistant to technology and backward in their thinking. Still, recent scholarship has emphasized that before the more militant Luddite movement coalesced, factory workers organized and lobbied factory owners and the government for reasonable job protections and profit-sharing in the face of increasing automation of their workplaces. This calls to mind recent strikes in fields as disparate as screenwriting and auto manufacturing, where automation and technological changes have altered the nature of the work and threatened the possibility of making a good living in those fields. It’s interesting to note that in the case of the recent Writers’ Guild of America strike, the industry was willing to make concessions and protections for writers that factory owners in the 19th century were not, signaling that as a society, we may be attempting to grapple more intentionally with the disruption of new technologies not only to profits but to the conditions of the workers who drive them.
The 20th century, particularly post-World War II, saw a growth of office work and an eventual decline in domestic manufacturing that shifted many Americans into the office worker role. Building on organized labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the 9-5, 5-day work week became the norm, and most people spent all that time on-site at offices and other workplaces. Business came to be structured around this schedule and expectation, and strategies were developed to get the most out of workers during their 40-hour week while ensuring the work was remunerative enough for workers to enjoy their days off and wield enough purchasing power to contribute to the economy. This configuration worked well for some, particularly men and unmarried women. Still, it allowed little flexibility for domestic work or child- and elder care, typically the responsibility of married women, mothers, and daughters. Despite advances in domestic technology that reduced some of the time spent on housework, the 20th-century workplace reinforced the societal expectation that women left the workforce when they married while taking advantage of both single and married men’s freedom from domestic responsibilities to capture more work hours from them.
This norm persisted through the latter half of the 20th century even as women made gains in the workplace equality and sought to pursue careers in ever-increasing numbers, leading to concepts of the “second” and even “third shift,” wherein women work outside the home as well as shouldering most of the domestic burden and childrearing for their households. As we will discuss later in the article, remote and hybrid working arrangements have had varying effects on this situation that factor into many employees’ expectations and decisions regarding where and how they will work.
The work revolution brought about by personal computers has been ongoing since the late 20th century. As computing and communications technology has rapidly evolved, office work has been increasingly organized around computers. Many people first encountered computers at work, but consumers quickly brought them into their homes and with the development of the laptop in the 1990s, out into the world. This allowed for keeping up with certain kinds of work from home. However, work-from-home days forced employees to miss meetings and conversations conducted at the office and tended to be the exception rather than the rule.
However, the invention of technologies like cloud storage and videoconferencing and the proliferation of wholly computer-based jobs such as software engineering led to a gradual increase in partly or fully remote work in the 21st century. When the pandemic hit and threw companies and organizations into chaos, many of the technologies needed for remote work already existed. Still, employers lacked the infrastructure and procedures necessary to move a large workforce sector to remote work in an orderly fashion. But companies and technology providers have learned, adapted, and innovated over the ensuing years. Companies now find themselves, as the world seeks a return to normalcy, with many more options, structures, schedules, and priorities to navigate.
The Pandemic as Catalyst
While the 20th and 21st centuries have seen ongoing developments in how work is organized and performed, the urgency and disruption of the pandemic accelerated several of these trends. Below are a few major logistical strategies and benefits that surfaced during the crisis that employers now weigh as they progress.
The first radical shift was the abrupt change to remote work. Remote work became the norm for many industries during lockdowns and the initial uncertainty of the pandemic, highlighting the viability of remote work arrangements. Tech companies responded by refining existing software and creating new tools to allow workers to collaborate across distances and managers to maintain directive and supportive relationships with their employees. Many workers, particularly young people, have embraced the flexibility of remote work, and studies have shown that it has allowed working mothers to remain in the workforce in greater numbers than before the pandemic. However, the research regarding the productivity of remote workers varies widely, with some studies showing a decline in productivity and others revealing gains. The viability of remote work for your organization will probably depend on the type of work employees perform, the ability of organizations and managers to build a sense of camaraderie and cohesion among employees, and the planning and ability for workers to access regular on-site meetings, events, or activities that allow team members to bond and retain a sense of who they are working for and with.
The pandemic established the proof of concept for remote work. Once the pandemic crisis subsided, employers quickly faced the reality that they couldn’t put the remote work genie back in the bottle. A company as large and powerful as Meta tried to implement a return-to-office policy, including strict attendance checking and location tracking, that led to a strong backlash from workers, the media, and the general public. In addition to disrupting what many employees felt was a strong work-from-home setup that many people had begun to structure their lives around when they did report to the office, many workers faced difficulties with basic requirements such as finding workspaces for themselves and times and places for teams to collaborate in person. Meanwhile, at Google, many workers have ignored the directive to return to the office, fomenting a culture of resentment and eroding the team cohesion and respect for leadership that organizations need to thrive.
Some analysts are citing a “CEO empathy problem” at the root of these missteps and backpedals: companies understandably wish to maximize productivity, but in many of these cases, leadership is not considering the human element in their new policies, leading to dissatisfaction and a sense of company callousness that can lower worker engagement as well as contribute to attrition and less competitive attraction of talent. An HR manager is a crucial partner for crafting workplace policies that balance productivity and growth with the expectations and well-being of employees.
In response to resounding resistance, many organizations adopted hybrid work models, allowing employees to split their time between the office and remote locations. This model builds in the time at the office that can be grounding and unifying to employees while allowing them to retain the flexibility they have come to depend on working remotely. Scheduling can be a challenge and must be managed appropriately. It’s important to ensure that your organizational culture recognizes equally the contributions of those who more frequently come into the office with those who take more remote days. Some teams or roles will lend themselves better to on-site or remote work, and policies and practices should be crafted with a degree of flexibility to account for both varying job responsibilities and personals preference when possible.
Another option for responding to the demand for more flexible work options is the four-day week. A four-day workweek may sound revolutionary, but pilot studies in the US, Canada, the UK, and Ireland exploring this option have been in place pre-pandemic and have met with a surprising amount of success. Studies are ongoing, but thus far, companies that allow time for adjustment to the new schedules see productivity return to normal levels and sometimes increase beyond that while reaping benefits like lower burnout rates among employees, higher job satisfaction, and better health. When the workweek and -day were shortened at other points in history, it created better conditions for workers without harming employers, and this option should not be dismissed as a potential tool for increasing productivity, recruitment, and job satisfaction.
However, a shorter workweek will not work for every type of job or industry and is another strategy that requires flexible and iterative thinking to get right. Imagine, for example, a company whose workers are overwhelmed with their workloads under their new four-day week and initially saw greater turnover at the outset of the new schedule. The company looks at its practices around meetings, and after decreasing the number of meetings and increasing collaborative documents and alternative check-in methods, turnover drops, and employees find they have enough time to complete their work in four days. This type of critical thinking and willingness to pivot is crucial for contemporary employers to navigate this era of change.
The pandemic also prompted a reevaluation of Paid Time Off (“PTO”) policies, with some companies adopting more flexible and generous PTO allowances due to COVID quarantine restrictions and disruption in schooling and childcare. Some employers found that increased PTO did not meaningfully disrupt workflow and the bottom line or valued the increased employee commitment and engagement it engendered enough to continue the practice. The importance of accommodating employees’ personal life needs, such as childcare and family responsibilities, has also become more widely acknowledged. Benefits around childcare resources and mental health are other options in your toolkit to keep employees healthy, happy, and present during the workday.
Embracing the Future of Work
As we move beyond the pandemic, the future of work remains uncertain. Still, it presents a unique opportunity to challenge outdated assumptions and build a more flexible and supportive work environment that keeps your business competitive in a changing world. We want to leave you with a few things to remember as you parse historical lessons and contemporary options to decide what is best for your business.
While you can look to businesses with similar size, purpose, or structure for inspiration, there are few universal or hard-and-fast rules here. What works for one organization may be a bad fit for another. Examine your business model and what your best people are looking for from their jobs, and be willing to creatively implement new policies and practices based on what makes sense.
It is also important to take an iterative approach when implementing changes to your work models. Track the impact of new policies on employees and business goals and be willing to reassess and pivot when needed. The new world of work is uncharted territory, and your best tools for navigating it are a critical eye, a creative approach, and a historical perspective.
Lastly, we are currently trending towards a more employee-centric world. While employers face a tight labor market that typically tips the balance toward employee leverage, remote and hybrid work will remain fixtures of the workplace. Employers that can recognize the diverse needs of their workforce and devise creative and cost-effective ways to meet those needs and support employees’ goals in and outside of their jobs will remain competitive in the job market and get the best from their people.
The workplace has always been in flux, evolving in response to technological advancements, social changes, and economic shifts. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disruptive force, magnifying trends that were already underway and forcing organizations to reconsider long-standing workplace practices. The future of work remains uncertain, but it offers opportunities to build more flexible and employee-centric work environments that support both organizational growth and the well-being of employees. Adapting to this new reality will require a willingness to iterate, listen to employee feedback, and discard outdated assumptions about work. In this evolving landscape, it is clear that one-size-fits-all solutions are no longer tenable, and dynamic, adaptive approaches will carry companies into the future.