Work has changed immeasurably over the decades that I have been in the workforce, and I am sure that 20 years from now, it will be unrecognizable from how it is today.
The concept of the “job for life” of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations is long-gone, and the boundaries between activities that would be considered skilled or non-skilled, professional or craftsman, and contractor, freelance or employed roles – are all becoming increasingly indistinct. The average American millennial worker is three times more likely to have changed their job within the past year than a worker in an older generation. Research also shows that they are less likely to feel a bond of loyalty or attachment to the organizations that currently employ them and more likely to feel “disengaged” from their employers – prompting them to shop around for new opportunities.
Throw in trends such as the “great resignation” – a phenomenon whereby one in five workers is likely to leave their current employer during the next 12 months – and it's clear that organizations are challenged like never before when it comes to retaining key people and talent.
Reactions and responses to these changing times have been mixed. We have seen CEOs in banking – as well as senior government leaders – issuing stern warnings that subscribing to new-fangled ideas like working from home are likely to damage both business metrics and the career prospects of those who subscribe to them.
When this comes from those at the head of the workforce, it’s easy to think it might be due to an unwillingness to relinquish the day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, control a boss has over their employees’ time when everyone is obliged to be in the office during business hours.
Are we actually more productive working from home? Studies into the question have had mixed results – but what is clear is that we are happier and more satisfied when we have the choice.
As an example of a company that is taking a proactive approach to managing the changing landscape of work, let's take a look at Virgin Money. At the start of this year, they launched a program called A Life More Virgin, which it describes as “a values-led approach to flexible working.”
All of its workers – including customer-facing, front-line store employees – have the opportunity to work remotely at least some of the time. This includes adopting a “locationless” policy when it comes to hiring, meaning staff have more discretion over when and where they work. An example the company gives is of a store employee who travels at the weekend to spend time with their child that lives separately from them. The employee was able to request that they work at the store closest to their child on Fridays, meaning they spent less time traveling after work to see the child.
The company formulated the policy shift following a detailed survey that involved soliciting input from across its entire workforce, as well as 3,000 members of the public. This from-the-ground-up methodology is refreshing to see in a world where we’re used to seeing initiatives devised by the leaders and the c-suite based largely on their own ideas of what’s good for the wider workforce.
At Virgin Money it has involved making infrastructure changes to its offices, branches, and facilities – with a number of commercial properties being shuttered and others converted into collaborative workspaces. These have been refitted to accommodate new methods of working, including an increasingly remote workforce with a need for hub facilities rather than permanent workspaces.
Another aspect of the initiative involves offering workers the option of taking up to five “wellbeing days” over the course of a year. This practice of encouraging people to take more control over the division of their working and non-working lives is mirrored in a wider experiment, the four-day week.
Currently, this is being trialed in a number of countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as the UK. There, 60 companies are set to adopt the new schedule between June and December this year. Crucially, the trial is being treated as a scientific experiment, run in conjunction with Cambridge and Oxford universities and Boston College. Workers taking part will be paid the same amount of money as when they were working a five-day week and will not be expected to work longer hours on the four days that they are on the job. During the trial, the effects on productivity, as well as employee satisfaction and happiness, will be empirically measured. The aim is to finally answer some questions that businesses and governments have been pondering since the Covid-19 pandemic led us to question whether there might be a better way of doing things.
Reducing the number of hours that employees spend on the job – whether in the office or working from home – has the potential for a great many benefits – from improving personal wellbeing to preventing burnout to encouraging the development of “soft” skill sets that may be best learned in social and recreational situations.
It could also potentially allow people to begin the process of reconnecting with their local environments – the neighborhoods, villages, or suburbs where they live – rather than simply treating them as a place where they sleep. This could have the effect of revitalizing local economies and encouraging us to spend more time engaging with local democracy and governance.
Undoubtedly, this approach also brings challenges. There have been concerns raised that flexible working arrangements sometimes make us feel more obliged to work unsociable hours. It would certainly be a mistake for employers to feel that staff who no longer have to make daily commutes to the office should in some way “repay” this benefit by making themselves available at any time of day or night. Replacing an office-bound existence with some form of “always-on” activity is unlikely to improve anyone’s work/life balance in the long term.
Studies are also ongoing into the mental health implications of many of today’s new working practices – such as working from home – which are likely to differ significantly depending on people’s individual situations.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that change is not only necessary – and long overdue – but also has the potential to bring about a host of benefits. Realizing the benefits will depend on it being managed correctly and implemented with an understanding of what is hoped to be achieved, as well as clear communication on what is expected from both the workforce and the organizations that employ them.