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The new machine age

The following blog outlines some thoughts about how our world of work has been changing during lockdown and lessons organisations may wish to learn going forward. The illustrations indicate what is contained in the text. Please enjoy reading.

With lockdown easing it may be time to ask, “What is the new normal”? How are organisations going to operate moving forward, how much will the innovations of the past year influence our working practices in the long term?

I would have found it hard to believe at the start of 2020 that I would be sitting in my study talking to people from all parts of the world as an everyday practice. Would I have believed I’d be joining events employing translators in 15 languages? Would I have considered I’d be learning everyday about the opportunities and limits of technology, running workshops and joining events and meetings? Would I have thought that my greatest daily concern would be my upload and download speed, something I was that I was oblivious to until last year?

According to Harvard Business School, Dina Gerdeman March 2021 “When the pandemic recedes, executives can’t expect office life to be as it was, but they can create a new world of work that can keep employees happy and productive”.

Working with organisations within the English NHS and other corporate clients who are currently wrestling with how to bring staff back to the office I am finding the interest from both staff and executives to be rich and varied. What the new working practices might be and what the new office might look like is a real challenge but, maybe more so, an exciting opportunity.

Over the past year those of us lucky enough to have the choice to work from home have taken up the offer. During that time, I have listened to conflicting stories of how, for some, their mental and physical health has improved whilst working from home but, for others, it has caused serious strain as they miss the contact and emotional support they get from being in a physical environment with others; after all us human beings are social animals.

Staff from a variety of organisations have told me they enjoy the flexibility and are thankful they have not had to endure the daily commute. Some tell me they have found a new energy to work differently. One self-employed woman told me that traveling to different locations for adult training was getting harder with a long-term physical condition and she was considering giving up her work. Working virtually enabled her to devote more energy for the work itself rather than the travel.

At the start of the first UK lockdown, I saw people working from their kitchen tables and their living rooms, now the same people have kitted themselves out for working in this way in the long term. One organisation told me that some staff have relocated a long way from the office base making traditional office working highly difficult, however, a monthly corporate day well be implemented with people continuing to work at home the rest of the time.

I know people who are not relishing going back to the office at all whilst others are desperate to return feeling the need for a sense of attachment and to break the pattern of working in a lonely way. Also, many people have difficulty in working from home because of different conflicting demands, for example chores, children or other adults needing the computer or Internet. Many people like to get out of the house, it is a place of respite and relaxation to them after work. We also have to acknowledge that, for some, getting out of the house is their respite; not everyone has a happy home.

Our work-based culture has changed from having those water cooler and spontaneous corridor and kitchen conversations to those less free flowing conversations we have over Zoom and Teams. Of all the things that people tell me that they miss, the casual connections and the human contact is the biggest loss they want to regain.

Maybe when considering the “new normal” we can reshape working practices to create a more sustainable and flexible way for work to be carried out. This means providing space and technology for people to get on with their work whilst enabling people to spend time in each other’s company and develop the working relationships that are so important for success.

Some top tips, thoughts for the new ways of working

Ask your staff, have an internally focused conversation, what would they like and how might that work? This should be actual engagement and honest dialogue, not a bland survey. Don’t make assumptions, some people may not wish to come back to the office whilst others may dread the idea of long-term working at home.

Actively think about loneliness. Levels of loneliness in U.K have increased since Spring 2020

Between 3 April and 3 May 2020 5.0% of people, about 2.6 million adults, said that they felt lonely often or always. From Oct 20220 to Feb 2021 Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) indicate that the proportion increased to 7.2 % of the adult population i.e., 3.7 million adults. Being honest with employees and providing wellbeing support is both humane and vital for ongoing success.

Embrace change in what staff do, not just where they do it. Organisations must support employees by acknowledging that their roles and functions may change, and not just by providing an opportunity to hot desk or have an office base. The very nature of their jobs may be different from now on, maybe role redesign and reshaping of the very nature of what we do and how we do it needs to happen, not just where it takes place.

Offer a hybrid model. Enable staff to choose how and where they want to work. Now people have the taste for working from home continue to support this for those it suits. If your organsiation chooses to have corporate days and/or wants to get staff in for key events or meetings enable staff to do both.

Be savvy about your buildings. Maybe more than ever before people are more aware and mindful about the buildings they enter. What is the air quality, do masks need to be worn by everybody? Who is cleaning what and how well? Do we corporately need vaccine passports to work onsite? What is the research telling us on “healthy buildings”?

Make the key part of being in the office being face to face contact. Unless your staff really need to come to a protected space to write, think, photocopy, or plan, the main function of a space where people gather (the office) is literally that, a space where people gather.

Managers may want to put some structure in place to ensure that the office is optimised for human space with important human interaction. Days in the office need to be inspiring and there is protected time for connection and creative time.

The second machine age

The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, talks about a new world of work progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies, they talk about the winners and losers of new technologies. It is really up to us on how we want to make the most of learning to work differently and not mindlessly go back to the old ways of working practices that no longer fit within our t


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