The future of offices after Work from Home

How will companies help employees build 'social capital'?

Bethany Stief works from home while twin six-year-old girls Nora and Willa attend online school amid surging Covid-19 cases, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on January 7. Reuters
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Today’s discussions within corporate circles often revolve around the evolution of the workplace and the implementation of the hybrid model, where employees blend work-from-home (WFH) with a few days at the office. Countries such as the UAE, Spain and Scotland have adopted innovative work schedules, be it different weekends or changed workdays.

However, after Omicron, when offices across the world eventually open up once again, work life may return to a pre-2020 state and organisations may look back at the past two years as an aberration. Even so, organisations across the board must consider whether a return to a pre-2020 workplace would be a missed opportunity to reconsider certain legacies of the last century and to revolutionise workplace practices.

The WFH model has highlighted the need for collaboration and adaptability. Some employee groups, such as at Apple, have even petitioned for freedom to plan their schedules. But as pointed out in Harvard Business Review, in an article entitled "Don’t let Employees Pick their WFH days" by Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, such freedom could give rise to an “office in-group” and a “home out-group”, alter workplace dynamics and muddy the collaborative waters.

Companies will now need a formal, structured approach to help employees understand and build "social capital" – the ability to leverage goodwill in the professional space, navigate bureaucracies and get things done. For instance, companies can normalise the practice of colleagues asking one another for help by setting in-place initiatives such as "Ask A Buddy" sessions. This would build a positive ethos and encourage employees to show gratitude towards colleagues. Most importantly, companies can provide employees with tools to support social connections at work, and enable projects that involve cross-functional teams, as well as knowledge sharing sessions between diverse groups.

While it is challenging for anyone to build social capital in a virtual workplace, it is especially hard for new employees

Social capital also has a bearing on a crucial segment: graduates entering the workplace. While it is challenging for anyone to build social capital in a virtual workplace, it is especially hard for new employees, as one typically picks up unspoken rules of corporate life by observing and emulating colleagues.

Over the past 18 months or so, companies successfully took the hiring process online, but this was intended as a temporary solution. As online recruiting becomes a more normal practice, companies will need to design programmes for new employees so that they can learn, imbibe workplace culture and smoothly assimilate into the workforce.

There are other aspects that require calibration.

Even before the pandemic, one of the LinkedIn Global Talent Trends (2020) was the rise of internal recruiting. It was not merely about being cost effective, as companies realised that they could tap into a talent pool with ready-made knowledge of company processes, systems and culture – in short, social capital.

While data is still insufficient, anecdotes suggests that some employers tend to schedule several rounds of interviews, only to fill the job vacancy by promoting internally. Companies will need to understand the implications from the perspective of an applicant and his or her experience, but must also weigh this against a longer-term view of the talent they seek to hire and build. In the future of work, it remains to be seen whether domain expertise will lose out to knowledge of internal systems and processes.

Another key focus area for organisations for the better part of the past decade has been Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). It was initially assumed that a widespread remote working culture would only help the cause of D&I. However, the pandemic exposed a paradox. Though WFH had built-in flexibility and had long been seen as a policy aimed at retaining women, data from McKinsey, a management consulting firm, reveals that close to 2 million women across the world fell out of the workforce during the pandemic.

In light of this reality, companies are starting to realise that WFH may not be the panacea for increasing women’s participation in the workplace. There are larger societal issues and stereotypes at play, given that a significant number of these departures were working mothers. In their April 2021 piece, "Childcare is a Business Issue", researchers Alicia Sasser Modestino, Jamie J Ladge, Addie Swartz and Alisa Lincoln reveal that 26 per cent of women who became unemployed during the pandemic in the US said it was due to a lack of childcare.

Companies will have to take a hard look at their inclusion programmes and the benefits that they offer. Leaders will need to listen, watch and deepen their understanding of the experiences that women employees face the world over, to be better allies for them.

For instance, performance criteria can be tailored to reflect individual realities, employees can be given temporary part-time options to manage the “double shift” of managing work and children and childcare responsibilities can be equalised by introducing parental leave.

Despite what the sceptics predicted, WFH led to increased productivity.

In a Mercer study of 800 employers, 94 per cent said their productivity was the same or higher than it was before the pandemic. But this was not without costs. The longer hours, absence of breaks and accompanying fatigue also led to a “burnout epidemic” that generated anxiety and stress among employees and made well-being a prominent issue. If the earlier set of employee wellness programmes were largely focused on executive health checks and annual marathons, and were often an extension of company benefits, the post-pandemic programmes will focus on improving work-life balance.

However, not all organisations have taken steps to counter the negative effects of employees being “always on”. An overwhelming 96 per cent of respondents to the Deloitte Human Capital Trends survey said organisations are responsible for employees’ well-being – even though 79 per cent said well-being isn’t integrated into the workplace.

In a post-Covid-19 world, companies have to embed well-being into their people strategy. Benefits such as personal time-off, enhanced sick leave, mental health programmes and flexibility will be important, though transient. Carving out a role such as, for example, director of well-being, can ensure holistic wellness remains on the agenda.

Other interesting conversations on the corporate front are emerging as well. The success of WFH made employees question two long-established viewpoints.

First, that you had to be seen spending long hours in office. Second, that you performed only under constant monitoring by your manager. This, in turn, has altered the employee mindset towards how they want to be measured.

Findings in a Harvard Business Review article showed that employees expect a change in the way their productivity is measured; they want managers to consider value over volume, and impact over output. This is in contrast to the traditional system that glorified attendance and face-time, put a premium on micromanagement and gave rise to the common misconception that “time equals productivity”.

While outsourcing and a globalised workforce have been around for some time, and automation and robotics are here to stay, experts believe these machine – powered jobs will still require inherent human skills – and skills such as managing others, communication, listening, problem solving and project management will continue to be in demand.

This will influence the way corporate departments for learning and development prioritise and design programmes for both upskilling and reskilling.

Transferable skills and agile learning models (which emphasise rapidly adapting to changing circumstances, and which prioritise speed, flexibility and collaboration) will gain traction, and the key differentiator of someone’s potential will be their ability to learn and be adaptable. This culture of continuous learning can help companies create a “stickiness factor”, and retain a shrinking pool of highly talented employees.

Whether we realise it or not, this is a pivotal chapter in the history of work, not just with regards to the blurring of boundaries between work hours and after hours but also, among other factors, the reality of online fatigue. In light of these, organisations must also reaffirm that people are people first. Such discussions will be important in the road ahead, one that leads to the future of work.

Published: January 14, 2022, 1:00 PM