Opinion piece | Is the future of work blended?
Jill Walsh, School Manager
and Roseanna Cross, Buisness Operations
The future of work, be it referred to as blended or hybrid, has been an often talked about subject over the last 24 months and one of the pandemic legacies that few leaders and managers might have anticipated when the mandate to work at home was given in March 2020. Organisations are wrestling with questions of how the attractions and positives for work/life harmony might be balanced with the needs of the business. The last two years has seen us make significant progress and has highlighted the advantage of blended working to areas such as work life balance, positive environmental impacts and reduced time and cost associated with commuting. However, there are concerns that more working at home with its emphasis on remote teams and reliance on technologies to bring people together limits access to ‘career capital,’ has equality, diversity and inclusion implications as more people try to ‘do it all’, and has negative impacts on mental health for some, whilst positive for others. As working at home became something we all adapted to, some of the pros and cons of this new future became apparent though it remains characterised by divergent views from both employers and employees.
Nicolas Bloom of Stanford University, has written extensively about home working and was featured in various media outlets during periods of lockdown, writing about the future of work and how employers might use the potential for hybrid to best advantage. The pandemic was the catalyst that allowed us to experiment with working from home en-masse and move away from the inertia that this topic had generated. Everyone was doing it, workers and clients, students and teachers, and the need for parents to juggle caring responsibilities generally meant that there was a much more understanding and flexible approach, although the corollary of this was often longer hours in front of the computer and a lack of boundaries between home and work. Companies and institutions saw massive investment in the infrastructure to support home working and learning and there was a reduction in stigma and more embracing of best endeavours as multiple social norms and expectations were changed. We’re now in a time when societies are opening up more and returning to patterns of social and work engagement which feel more in line with how life was before. However, in an increasingly competitive labour market where vacancies for roles in the UK are on the rise (eg. £150,000 starting salaries as firms fight for staff – BBC News) the ability to allow staff the flexibility to combine working at home and in the office could be a winning formula, with companies who seek to force one model or another may find they very quickly lose employees to others with better terms and conditions.
Bloom also writes that the decision to seek employment where working at home is an option, as well as the proportion of working at home, might be made by life circumstances rather than planning for a future career. People often really like working from home because it gives them more chance to balance caring responsibilities and often those people may be female. In a 2015 study, Bloom (OP-QJEC140033 165..218 (stanford.edu) worked with a Chinese travel company to explore the impact on working at home on the company productivity and performance and the study illustrated this drastically improved amongst employees who’d opted to home work and there was reduced attrition and more satisfaction. However, the importance of being with colleagues and having the opportunity to develop career capital via networking, chance encounters with others, access to training and development opportunities should not be underestimated. John Harris (Working from home has entrenched inequality – how can we use it to improve lives instead? | John Harris | The Guardian) argues that we need to think about flexibility in the context of blended working, so that we consider the balance between life and work (e.g. start and finish times do not need to be the same if working at home), as well as the specific support needs of new recruits (which may entail more office based working for them).
As we navigate this new form of working within Higher Education Institutions, what are the key things we could be thinking of to ensure our model of blended working works within the context of our business? In her Perspective Jubilee edition article, Creating a sustainable future for higher education, Alison Johns reminds us of the importance of community within the context of Higher Education. There’s a need to consider how we ensure we have bright, vibrant, community focussed campuses for our students and staff that have, at their heart, spaces for collaboration and interaction, encouraging both formal opportunities and those chance encounters which made, physically being in work, a pleasure. Our universities are places of learning, and not just for students, so there is a need to think about how to facilitate learning communities for staff with access to colleagues, networks and informal opportunities for both professional and academic staff. When some people are in the office and others at home, how do we ensure that we all stay connected even when we are not physically present in the same space. We need to be careful that we don’t, inadvertently, create barriers to access these opportunities because of decisions to take advantage of more flexible working. A move to blended working offers a chance to review how new campus spaces are designed and how existing resources might be remodelled and redesigned to create something quite different. For example, redesigning offices to provide more collaboration space for when we are all in the office. However, this would necessitate some bold thinking and a confidence on how the future of work will develop. Finally, how do leaders and managers approach effective people management when working in a hybrid environment and what are the key components to making this work? Strategies such as ‘managing by outcomes’ may be key here, an approach that encourages the clear communication of organisational goals and measures performance against those rather than strategies focussed on presenteeism and staying busy. I think the questions around blended working will be with us for a while to come as we navigate the undeniable advantages to working in more flexible ways but keeping at the heart of our discussions, the distinctive nature of our sector and the important facets we should preserve.
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