Looking ahead as many return to office work

Carey Business School expert Richard Smith discusses the future of the post-pandemic workplace

Empty office space

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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 conversation with the Hub, Smith discusses 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.

What do you see as the main positives and negatives of so many people having done their jobs at home since March 2020?

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: In the United States, 34% of workers 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.

"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."

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% 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."

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.

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.

For executives, this could be a big opportunity to reimagine how, when, and where their employees should work. If you could draw up a list of recommendations for these executives, what would it include (assuming you agree that it's a big opportunity)?

Rather than rushing back to the same work patterns and practices, many might suggest that firm leaders have an opportunity to rethink the assumptions for how, where, and when work is done. While this may be true in some cases, many work environments such as manufacturing and consumer services require a physical presence. In other cases, the capital expense of real estate, equipment, or access to resources would naturally limit the portability or flexibility of work.

"Some firms will have the luxury to rethink work practices. ... This might include moving to more distributed locations such as satellite clusters in suburbs or more flexibility to live in alternative locations with occasional travel to the office or client sites."

However, some firms will have the luxury to rethink work practices. In these cases—likely knowledge work and back-office processing work—firms do have the opportunity to reimagine work in some ways. This might include moving to more distributed locations such as satellite clusters in suburbs or more flexibility to live in alternative locations with occasional travel to the office or client sites.

Many businesses will have the opportunity to rethink business travel. For professional services firms and many multinational organizations, the cost savings of business travel has been a hidden help during the pandemic. While video meetings may not entirely replace in-person gatherings, reducing travel costs and time can provide significant business benefit.

Given the topics we've discussed here and the global war for talent, do you expect workplace changes to play out similarly in most, or many, other nations? If not, what might be the differences from nation to nation, or from region to region?

The global response to the pandemic has varied around the world as nations have been forced to determine how to protect citizens while balancing economic and national interest needs. While we are battling a common virus, a common global response is not possible since many nations have limited access to vaccines.

Assuming we see the virus and the variants controlled, I do expect that we will see a global shift in how knowledge work is organized. However, we can expect that there will be variations on this based on regulatory and cultural expectations. For example, Asian countries with cultures that place high value on relationship and hierarchy are more likely to continue with practices of coming into the office. On the other hand, some European countries with a culture that values task orientation and direct communication may be more inclined to have people work from home. It is also important to note that the local housing infrastructure may also be a factor in some urban locations (i.e., workers living with their families in small apartments in Hong Kong or Tokyo may be eager to work from a desk in an office building).

Is all this working from home and hybrid work just a fad that will fade away over time?

There are some who argue that all this focus on hybrid work models is a bunch of hype and that we will be back to our old patterns of commuting and office work soon. However, there are two key factors that we must consider: 1) the duration of the pandemic disruption which has allowed enough time to shift behaviors and expectations and 2) the global reach of this disruption which has created what we call a "Cohort Experience" in the current generations in the workforce around the world. While we may see some of the old patterns of office work re-emerge in the future, the evidence suggests that new flexible work models are here to stay.