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The future of work

Leadership

Why Big Brother should not be watching you at work

Published 15 July 2022 in Leadership • 11 min read

The future of work remains hybrid. But tracking every keystroke, mouse movement and email is not the best way to manage the more fluid boundaries, argue Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Sonja Köhne, Thomas Schildhauer, Martin Krzywdzinski and Hendrik Send, as they offer practical steps for organizing the office and company of the future. 

What will the future of work look like? Of course, for many, in-person work is essential. But for a large part of the workforce, the need is more ambiguous, and companies have developed fundamentally different approaches. Our research builds on several sources including 34 case studies in six industries (automotive, chemical, mechanical and plant engineering, logistics, health, financial services) complemented by a standardized survey of 540 companies in these industries.  

We also analyzed 100 commercial people analytics software that analyze employee-generated data and offer actionable insights to employees and managers, for example through personalized performance feedback, automated task allocation or comprehensive team dashboard.   

Shifting boundaries 

The breakdown of boundaries between professional and private life started long before COVID-19, but has been accelerated by the pandemic, creating far more fluid boundaries. We see three types of boundaries becoming more fluid: spatial, temporal, and cultural. As a result, while a variety of highly individualized work arrangements that popped up during the pandemic will stay, others will emerge. Some people want or need to work in the office. But often, they are unlikely to do so five days a week, nine-to-five. Others will come in occasionally and seek a desk-sharing arrangement.  

Where possible, people will adjust their work schedules to fit their personal circumstances, from early birds and those who want to chop up their work time into short focus hours with long breaks in between. Some will continue to identify closely with their company, while others will value the opportunity to detach from it. 

The impact of space and time on culture 

For employers, blurring boundaries mean their direct reports suddenly move outside their spatial reach, which some compensate by granting employees autonomy and others by increasing control through digital technology. As boundaries dissolve, employees will experience organizational culture very diversely. An employee’s experience may suddenly significantly differ from that of a co-worker who previously shared an office.  

Collective experiences and collective organizational memories, central for a flourishing organizational culture, are thus much harder to achieve. With the increase of remote work, office work will change – and with it the construction of workspace, time and culture – resulting in new architectural requirements and new managerial challenges. 

Given that some workers transcend the spatial boundaries of their companies and come together in co-working spaces, it is much harder for an organization to create a wholesome organizational culture. Similarly, with temporal flexibility, time together to form a cohesive identity is much more limited. As a result, leadership needs to rethink how to create an organizational unity despite spatial, temporal, and cultural distance, separation, and diversity. 

The future of work
Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Sonja Köhne, Thomas Schildhauer, Martin Krzywdzinski and Hendrik Send offer practical steps on how to organize the office and company of the future.

Managing boundaries  

As there will be many more individualized decisions of where, when and how people work, leadership needs to actively manage ever more fluid boundaries. The challenge for managers will be to harmonize these different wishes and establish procedures which still allow a team with different types of work arrangements to cooperate.  

Simply opting for the middle way is not the answer. Hybrid solutions that try to please everyone can end up being the worst of both online and offline worlds. To effectively manage the spatial, temporal and cultural blurring of the workplace, managers need to follow a three-step process: rethinking, renegotiating, and revising boundaries. 

Rethinking boundaries 

First, managers need to reflect upon both human and technological capabilities. They may face the paradoxical need to quantify further key performance indicators and so standardize certain output and practices while also increasing flexible working arrangements. As the ways employees work become more diverse and difficult to observe, finding universal indicators of productivity and offering fair rewards will become increasingly challenging. It requires thinking of productivity in terms of outcomes and objectives rather than behavior such as tracking keystrokes, mouse movements or e-mail traffic. 

When rethinking boundaries, managers should keep in mind that flexible work arrangements are not suitable for all employees. Neither are all employees equally equipped to navigate fluid boundaries themselves, as this represents a major shift of responsibility from the organization to the individual. A reflection should therefore take place on a micro-level and ask where each team and each employee stands. At several companies in which we conducted interviews, managers were concerned that the individualization of working arrangements might undermine team cohesion and agile work organization.  

Agile work settings in particular require frequent communication loops within the team. The communication loops can at times be organized in virtual or hybrid forms, but in some situations it may be necessary to require all employees to be present in the office. Before opening the conversation with employees, it is crucial to examine how much sovereignty each involved actor has in deciding where and how new boundaries are set.  

At the same time, managers should get an overview of existing technological aids and critically evaluate their use. This entails assessing their own needs and those of employees. Technological aids can range from collaboration tools which allow asynchronous work that can be as simple as shared Google Docs, virtual workplaces, and coordinating systems such as Wonder and MS Teams, to analytics tools that offer employees individualized performance feedback such as Zoom IQ, to tools that offer managers insights into team productivity such as Microsoft Viva Insights. All these tools come with their own risks.

During the pandemic, employee engagement software such as Officevibe offered return-to-office surveys to gauge “employee and organizational readiness”. Meanwhile, other vendors made headlines for disguising surveillance as togetherness, such as Pesto (formerly Pragli) that recommends users to leave microphones and laptop cameras on at all times. Which tools are right for each team highly depends on the nature of the work and the team itself.  

Leadership needs to rethink how to create an organizational unity despite spatial, temporal, and cultural distance, separation, and diversity

Renegotiating boundaries 

Second, boundaries need to be discussed and renegotiated. Fluidity requires the recognition of needs, an open communication of priorities, expectations, and responsibilities from both managers and employees. Managers should establish regular discussion forums and check-ins with their team members. This gives everyone involved an opportunity to explicate their boundary preference. These discussions can be integrated into existing tools such as personal feedback meetings. With organizational boundaries dissolving, the onboarding process will gain further importance.  

Regardless of whether the onboarding takes place physically or virtually, as it did for many new recruits during the pandemic, it represents a key moment that will define how employees experience their new workplace, bond with coworkers, and achieve a “cultural fit” with the organization. Keeping up engagement and commitment in the long-term without a shared identity among employees will be an almost impossible task.  

The role of managers is to reintegrate individualized work arrangements within the team. Management needs to preserve opportunities for collaboration despite shifted and individualized boundaries. While individuals become more flexible, team coordination may actually become less flexible, for example by making it increasingly difficult to schedule team meetings.  

For instance, this could mean that remote employees clearly communicate their individual availability and working hours. These can be entered into any team calendar, such as those commonly offered in Outlook, Google or Teams. The indicated hours should be respected by both the manager and the team. Here, again, a careful evaluation of technologies is needed as tools marketed as time-administration apps can also be sheer surveillance tools.  

Another way to handle different expectations of flexibility could be a definition of core working hours. At the same time, it is important to note that individual and team needs may not always be reconcilable. All parties must learn to endure the resulting conflict. 

In the German companies we studied, general rules for working arrangements are often negotiated by management with the works council. The resulting agreements provide a framework for all managers and teams. In other companies, management set basic rules. At any rate, general frameworks are helpful as they relieve managers from negotiating conditions individually. 

Revising boundaries 

Third, managers need to revise boundaries. A major managerial concern is to avoid a division of employees into two classes: those working from home and those on site. Solutions must be found through good technical equipment for working remotely. New technologies can help create a smooth hybrid experience, such as 360° conferencing equipment that dynamically covers conversations in a meeting room. Still, closing the gap between onsite and home-based employees is difficult.  

During the pandemic, communication within teams was kept up, while weak ties between coworkers without immediate need to exchange information went down. This can lead to unproductive knowledge silos. Countering them requires an infrastructure for effective knowledge and communication management. For example, an internal wiki can capture crucial team knowledge. Other vendors offer more complex analyses of communication patterns and networks, thereby also promising to detect unproductive knowledge silos.  

To increase team cohesion and bridge the distance between employees, managers can introduce small moments or dwellings of shared experiences such as (virtual) team get-togethers and activities. While newly negotiated boundaries may be largely independent of physical space, it can be useful to translate emerging needs back into office design. For example, creating “caves” and “campfires” in offices. These are spaces that allow workers to retreat from hectic home lives as well as spaces that allow coworkers to socialize.  

Such a continual revising of boundaries will not be easy. Some companies are already changing their working space arrangements and adapting them. In one company we studied, the ongoing planning for a new office building was changed while the pandemic was still in progress: fewer individual offices are being planned and the open working spaces are also being redesigned. Islands for quiet, concentrated work must be created, but also communication spaces; in addition, some employees need special equipment while others do not.

In many companies, however, it will not be possible to radically change the space situation, at least in the short term. Here, managers face the particular challenge of balancing increasingly individualized wishes regarding work time and space, the necessities of team collaboration, and a relatively rigid spatial situation. This requires revising both work culture and technical infrastructure. Managers need to respect work/life boundaries while keeping employees committed – and all that with a hybrid workforce.

For instance, managers trying to obtain more information about distant workers through people analytics should not use these tools as a means of control. Here a shift in perspective is needed to the effect that these tools could give employees more opportunities to manage boundaries themselves, for example by staying in control of the data they generate and being empowered to leverage them to meet their own individual needs. 

Rethinking the future of work  

As the world moves further into the post-pandemic recovery period, companies around the world are redefining their remote work policies, and some countries are adopting new approaches to working weeks. However, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach.  

A lot of work still needs to be done 

The dissolution of spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries requires active management to reconcile diverse needs for flexibility of employees. These will, at times, be in conflict with organizational demands. Managers need to identify and communicate viable solutions to establish, legitimize and advance new work arrangements. To do so, they need to rethink, renegotiate and ultimately revise organizational and work boundaries. Clearly, creating the future of work is still a lot of work in itself. 

Google offers a hybrid work model, where most workers are required to be in the office three days a week. Apple also tried to implement a hybrid model of three days a week, however its workers were not happy. Thousands of Apple employees, under the name Apple Together,  signed an open letter to the company, criticizing Apple’s return-to-work policy. Shortly after, Apple softened its stance and announced it was postponing indefinitely its return-to-the-office plan, citing rising COVID-19 cases as the reason for the delay. Twitter, AirBnB and Slack (owned by Salesforce) say they will allow remote working indefinitely.  

Elon Musk, Tesla chief executive, set the cat among the pigeons in June when he sent an email to all Tesla employees saying, “Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week … if you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned”. In response, Germany’s biggest union, representing one of Tesla’s major manufacturing plants, hit back at Musk’s return-to-the-office order, stating that “in Germany an employer cannot dictate the rule just as he likes”. 

Although none of the major banks has offered a permanent work-from-home policy, they, too, are experimenting. 

Goldman Sachs has offered some flexibility, but has stated its preference is for people to work in the office. Its first attempt to get employees back in the office full-time in February 2022 failed: only half of the company’s 10,000 workers returned to its head office. However, it has been reported that, since then, 70% of Goldman’s workforce is now working in the office on any given day. Other Wall Street banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, are also taking hardline stances on bringing employees back to the office. 

 Credit Suisse, on the other hand, has about 37% of employees back in the office according to a recent statement by the company. This falls short of its policy, which stipulates that 60% should have returned. UBS has indicated that two-thirds of its workforce will probably always work in a hybrid format and there is no requirement to be in the office every day. 

In the US and UK, remote working has been truly embedded in the work culture, but this is not the same everywhere; some countries appear to be resistant to changing the way people work. This may be cultural, technological, or logistical.  

In Europe, for example, France appears to buck the trend. According to an Ifop study for the French think tank Fondation Jean-Jaurès, only 29% of French workers work remotely at least once a week. By comparison, 51% of Germans, 50% of Italians, 42% of British workers and 36% of Spaniards work remotely. The French who do work remotely appear to do so far less frequently than their neighbors. For example, 30% of Italian workers say they worked remotely four to five days a week, and 17% stated that they worked remotely for two to three days a week. In France the figures are 11% and 14% respectively.  

Trade unions in a number of European countries are calling for governments to implement a four-day working week. Some countries have embraced the idea, whereas others appear more reluctant. Recently, Belgian employees won the right to work a four-day week without it impacting their salary. But this does not mean they are working less, instead they can choose to compress their working hours into fewer days. 

Authors

Ali Aslan Gümüsay

Visiting Research Fellow at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge

Ali Aslan Gümüsay is a visiting research fellow at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and Head of the Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Society (IE&S) research group at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society.

Sonja Köhne

Associated researcher in the IE&S group at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society

Sonja Köhne is an associated researcher in the IE&S group at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society.

Thomas Schildhauer

Professor of Marketing at the University of the Arts Berlin

Thomas Schildhauer is Founder and Director of the Humboldt Institute and is a Professor of Marketing at the University of the Arts Berlin.

Martin Krzywdzinski

Professor of International Labor Relations at the Helmut Schmidt University

Martin Krzywdzinski is Head of the Globalization, Work and Production at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Director of the Weizenbaum Institute, and Professor of International Labor Relations at the Helmut Schmidt University, Hamburg.

Hendrik Send

Professor of Marketing at the HTW Berlin

Hendrik Send is Professor of Marketing at the HTW Berlin and project leader on ‘internet-enabled innovation’ at the Humboldt Institute.

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