In today’s business world, the future of the workplace is one of those hot topics everyone is talking about, water cooler or no water cooler.
According to Statistics Canada, four per cent of workers were doing their jobs mainly from home in 2016 but, by 2020, that number had reached 40 per cent, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This happened globally – it happened right around the world,” Stephen Harrington, a partner at global business advisory firm Deloitte and national lead of its workforce strategy practice, said of the work-from-home phenomenon. “We’ve really never seen anything like that before in human history.”
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Harrington will be delivering the opening remarks at the Ottawa Talent Summit taking place at Brookstreet Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 4. He’ll be speaking about workforce strategies for the future of work in a post-pandemic world during the one-day conference, hosted by the Ottawa Board of Trade and sponsored by RBC.
“This is a great opportunity for organizations to figure out how to be a lot more thoughtful about the workforce and the trends that are changing it,” said Harrington in a phone interview with OBJ, referring to the changes forced by the pandemic. “We need to figure out how to attract employees and engage them differently post-pandemic.”
Harrington, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a business strategist, started examining the future of the workplace in 2011 in partnership with the HR Professionals Association of Ontario.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
“It was interesting because there was no #futureofwork back then,” he said. “It wasn’t a topic yet.”
What was known, he continued, was that the Fourth Industrial Revolution and underlying digital transformation were going to fundamentally change the world of work.
“There really was a whole bunch of activity that was already preparing us for this future, that we were just lucky enough was in place, and that accelerated the way humans behave,” Harrington said.
If the pandemic had happened, say, 20 years ago, “We would not have been able to send everybody home or, if we did, businesses would have stopped because the technologies that we used to get through this weren’t ready.”
“I think the war for talent is going to be increasingly about the quality of the job you’re able to offer.”
During his talk, Harrington will touch on such trends as the Great Resignation and Great Exhaustion, while explaining what worker preferences are likely going to look like in the future and how organizations might need to reconsider workforce engagement.
With Canada facing a future skills crisis, “organizations need to think how they’re going to build those skills into their workforce,” he said. “I think the war for talent is going to be increasingly about the quality of the job you’re able to offer.”
While experts agree that productivity during the pandemic has changed, they can’t all agree on whether it’s better or worse, said Harrington.
“I have a bit of a theory I’ll certainly share with people at the Summit.”
Harrington believes many workers have fallen into a productivity trap that prioritizes the ticking of boxes. The problem is, workers can get so busy completing tasks that they’re not necessarily moving the needle on their goals, he said.
“And what’s worse, we know that when people are stuck doing nothing but tasks for long periods of time, it drains them and it probably can explain, in part, why we’re seeing all kinds of data suggesting workers are feeling overworked, isolated and stressed. It’s creating challenges for wellness.”
Remote workers seem to be worried that a return to the office will result in the loss of valuable time through commuting, or that they’ll be stuck doing work that they could have just done from the convenience of home, said Harrington.
“To me, that’s at the core of the challenge. We need to figure out how we’re going to redesign not just the experience of the workplace and get people back into the office in hybrid models, if that’s their strategy, but how we distribute work, how we measure performance, how we run meetings and, frankly, how much of the day we expect people to be on virtual calls.”
Harrington supports outcomes-based performance management that makes goals transparent, while allowing people to reach their objectives without attending to the details of their activity. It focuses on what work achieves.
“A lot of businesses are still tightly measuring inputs and outputs,” he said. “The problem with inputs and outputs is it encourages task-based thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily give us a good-quality metric.
“A lot of performance management systems are trying to recalibrate themselves and say, ‘What do we expect of you in a week or two weeks, and what should the quality look like?’ That’s a different way for a leader to follow up on performance than to be measuring inputs and outputs.”
Organizations also need to think of ways to make their offices feel like a powerful people magnet, with a stronger focus on big-team meetings, building culture, apprenticeship and in-person events, said Harrington.
“As one of my colleagues said, it should be a place where you feel a fear of missing out.”
There are benefits to working remotely, such as increased flexibility, Harrington pointed out.
“It’s great for allowing people to feel more autonomy and trust in their work and to have more freedom to integrate their work into their life.”
Yet, the office is also an important place for collaboration, innovation and learning, he added.
The most rational response to the new workforce reality remains the hybrid model, Harrington believes. Yet, organizations need to recognize this flexible approach, where employees work partly in an office space and partly remotely, requires a specialized way of thinking, he added.
“It’s something completely different, and we need to build new muscles and approaches in order to make it work.”