As more Americans begin the transition from working almost entirely at home to working again at their pre-pandemic office spaces, experts in management and organization are considering what has been learned from the experience of the past 17 months and what might change in the ways people work.
What will “the new normal” of work life look like in the months and years to come?
One such expert is Richard R. Smith, professor of practice and vice dean for education and partnerships at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. With a long career in both industry and academia, Smith has lived and worked in North America, Europe, and Asia, developing the insights that form the core of his research and teaching interests: particularly, human capital as a strategic resource for competitive advantage.
In the following Q&A, Smith discusses such topics as the work inequalities revealed by the COVID-19 lockdown, the office as crucible of innovation, and the future of the 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday work week.
Q: What do you see as the main positives and negatives of so many people having done their jobs at home since March 2020?
RICHARD R. SMITH: As we emerge from the pandemic and prepare to go back to the office, we may need to relearn how to wear a tie or heels as we re-engage in corporate office life. Aside from learning how to juggle various responsibilities from home, the pandemic brought several lessons that may prove valuable as business leaders consider future plans:
Highlighting Job Risks – Thirty-four percent of workers in the United States are front-line and essential, which means that working from home is not an option. These workers are at a higher risk than others – and have no opportunity to work from home. Leaders in all industries should consider measures that protect essential and front-line workers in their businesses.
New talent programs to attract and retain people in these roles may be necessary for some employers to re-evaluate the employee value proposition. Hospitals and other health care occupations are facing a clear war for talent right now, which is expected to continue for some time as people exit the industry and young people switch their focus to other interests.
Deepening Inequalities – With approximately 50% of the working population able to work from home, many people have been forced to either continue to work on site or exit the workforce. Leaders have become more aware of the inequities in their own organizations as they have been highlighted through the pandemic. Since much of the job loss impact has been with minority and women workers, leaders must reassess diversity and equality efforts across the organization.
Recognizing Our Resilience and Ability to Change – Many businesses made rapid changes to move to digital operations, remote working, and new management approaches. This reinforces the idea that people respond well in a crisis but can be otherwise slow to adopt changes. While many organizations struggle with change management challenges in normal times, perhaps leaders can take note of the commitment, communication, and management actions in the crisis to serve them well in managing the next strategic change effort.
Adopting Digital Work Practices – The lockdown nature of COVID-19 brought a surge in e-commerce, which grew by more than 300 percent in 2020, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Processes, approvals, and record-keeping also went online as businesses were forced to adopt digital practices. In a world where it is suddenly not practical to print things out, we have accidentally shifted to a paperless office environment. The growth of AI in many businesses over the last year has been staggering with the increased focus on digital solutions. As we move forward, business leaders have the opportunity to continue to press forward in our digital business adoption and build on our progress in the pandemic.
Blending of Work and Home Life – As many people worked from home while tending to kids, pets, and dual careers, we learned to adjust and adapt. As such, work hours became blurred and home obligations became transparent. This mix of home and work can be stressful at first, but many adjusted to this as a new normal way of “balance.”
Many people have found benefit in this flexible model that creates a way of mixing work and home life. (Note, however, that this is not technically a “new” model, as it was popular decades ago in the “cottage Industries.”) After all, we are a workforce of one when working in our homes. In our future work models, many employers will continue to offer increased flexibility with hybrid work models and other ways of capitalizing on this new way of working.
A recent New York Times article noted that while some CEOS, like Apple’s Tim Cook, say a work culture where employees are in the office is more conducive to idea generation and fruitful collaboration, people who study the topic say there is no hard evidence to back up that argument. What’s your view?
It is hard to prove the absence of innovation. However, we do know that innovation is fueled by socialization of people in clusters that are comprised of diverse groups. The hard evidence of this comes from the social sciences. As we look back in history, we note how urban locations with seaports provided for diversity, trade, and the sharing of ideas – in contrast with isolated groups of people. We note that new ideas build upon other ideas or adjacent concepts as people explore challenges or new tools. These days, we call this a “cluster effect” and see a great example of the hub of talent and ideas in Silicon Valley.
On a smaller scale, we see our physical office environments offering a “cluster effect” – as long as there are natural opportunities for interaction, socialization, and collaboration. Most modern offices foster collaboration and teamwork, which can open doors for diverse ideas and opinions. Of course, office places with closed doors and isolated workspaces would not likely be conducive to idea generation or innovation.
Digital tools are continuing to progress and are closing the gap when it comes to collaboration and innovation. Yet the evidence would suggest that we are not using the tools to broaden our perspectives or challenge our thinking. Instead, digital tools can actually make it easier to isolate with like-minded people and ignore the value of diversity. As such, employers facing talent shortage challenges will want to promise more flexibility in the work, but must be keenly aware of the inherent diversity and innovation challenges that may be created as an unintended consequence.
WATCH: Rick Smith Discusses the value of inclusive leadership
Has the pre-pandemic structure of work become a thing of the past? Will the Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 schedule for office workers disappear as employers compete in the post-pandemic war for talent?
The concept of a five-day week and a two-day weekend emerged in the early 1900s. Gradually, labor laws began to shape a typical work week, which varies from country to country. Over the past two decades, the traditional sense of a 9-to-5 workday has become blurred as technology provided us with access to communications and files from anywhere. In fact, to protect the concept of the work week, some European organizations have banned weekend or after-hours emails.
Before the pandemic, many organizations offered flex time with core hours to allow employees to manage their own schedules while also ensuring that people were together for core hours. Since the value of coming together in an office is centered on the in-person collaboration, I suspect that companies will ask employees to be present on site on specific days and hours to help ensure the personal connections and coordination.