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It’s the end of the (working) world as we know it
If there is a word that currently haunts the world of work it is this: hybrid. Juggling in-person work and remote work, finding the best tools for working together, redefining the role of the manager in this new era: these are issues that need solving because one thing is for sure: there will be no going back to the way we used to work.
The pandemic accelerated changes that had already begun in the world of work. For decades the Fordian model made the world go round, with its three defining principles of a single place of work, set working-hours and a single role for each worker. However, in the 21st century these rules have been upended, with the result that this model has become outmoded.
Accelerated by successive lockdowns, remote work has, in no small way, deconstructed the notion of the workplace. Yet rare was the company that wholeheartedly embraced this paradigm shift. In 2022, though, it is clear that work does not take place in just one location anymore.
In France, since 2020, rules have been in place governing remote work which, a couple of years on, has led to workers settling into a pattern of three days a week at the office, two days working from home, according to a study carried out by the Boston Consulting Group and the French National Association of Human Resources directors. Published in March 2022, the study found that, having been forced to implement remote working with the arrival of the first lockdown actually popularized the practice within companies, which were quick to grasp its potential for optimizing budgets and office space.
Four walls to no walls
If there is one thing that characterizes the end of the traditional workplace, it is without a doubt seeing certain companies cutting ties with their brick-and-mortar offices and opting for full remote-work. Among the high-profile companies to take the plunge has been consultancy giant Deloitte, which has already relinquished a third of its offices in the UK.
Another realization: it will be unthinkable for staff to go back to the office and expect to operate in the same way they did prior to the pandemic. Sylvain Montcouquiol, board member of global shopping-mall operator Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield states: “For us, it quickly became apparent that we needed to take this revolution through to its logical conclusion by remaking our workspaces. Why would anyone want to come to work in an office, when they can just as easily do the same job from the comfort of home? We thought hard about how we could bring meaning to collective work in the post-pandemic era, and create a desire among workers to rediscover their colleagues.”
The idea of a fixed, physical place of work where people are required to assemble every morning, Monday to Friday, already seems to belong to a bygone era
One way that this was achieved by companies was to take the flex-office approach to stimulating collaboration, having people come in, where this was preferable, and letting those tasks that could be carried out from home, be carried out from home. This approach can extend to the use of co-working spaces and other third-party offices.
Going further, some companies have even set up virtual offices in the Metaverse. To wit: Ubiq, a workspace company, has started to offer virtual spaces for meetings. This decision was taken by company CEO Mehdi Dziri as a way to combine Ubiq’s physical co-working spaces, with a virtual one.
If the thought of strapping what look like an oversized pair of ski goggles to your face before breaking down the quarterly results to colleagues makes you chuckle, it nevertheless underlines how close VR meetings are to becoming a fact of working life and, more to the point, that the days of the physical office are numbered.
Distant yet present
For workers in a range of sectors, the idea of a fixed, physical place of work where they are required to assemble every morning, Monday to Friday, already seems to belong to a bygone era. However, uncoupling the work from the workplace is not straightforward and is a major headache for heads of HR. “Our remote-work-policy agreements encourage staff to come into the office on a regular basis, in order to spark creativity and maintain a good esprit de corps. This new way of working has forced bosses to adapt their approach to managing staff,” so says Eric Chevalier, Head of HR at AstraZeneca France. Informal interactions, the dynamism induced by the energy of the group, the distinctive culture of a company, all these things are very hard to replicate when staff don’t share the same physical space.
The challenge posed by the hybridization of work goes beyond, therefore, ensuring that people are doing the same work at home that they would be doing at the office. “The pandemic turbo-charged operational and managerial transformations that had already begun, and it is clear that there will be no going back. Hybrid working, which has become the norm for the majority of white-collar staff, is a prime example of a change that is here to stay. But the future of work does not stop there,” stresses Vinciane Beauchene, the Paris managing director of the Boston Consulting Group. So, the end of the traditional office then, but not necessarily the end of office life, even if it does take a turn for the virtual.
Tomorrow’s world of work will have less need of four walls, and this is already having an impact in larger cities, where office buildings are well below pre-pandemic rates of occupancy. In France, for example, the surface area occupied by offices is 32% lower on average.
When it comes to modern work, the Aristotelian unities of dramatic tragedy, namely that there should be one principal action, cover a set time frame and a single physical location, clearly no longer apply. The worker of the future will be nomadic, working wherever and, why not, whenever they wish.
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